Tag: education

The “E” Word

For the past few weeks I’ve been musing about composition education at the college level, working through some suggestions as to how the pedagogy and curriculum of teaching composers might be reexamined. In addition to integrating a composition curriculum with that of an institution’s music education area and expanding that curriculum to include a composition pedagogy course, my third and final suggestion is in the realm of entrepreneurism. As I mentioned before, feasibility, relevancy, and sustainability will continue to raise their ugly heads as the three primary concepts that are endemic in composition education today, and all three point to the necessity of emphasizing entrepreneurial skills throughout a student’s time in school.

Most examples of undergraduate composition education I’ve come across tend to hew towards the models of either a) basic music major + composition lessons or, if they’re lucky, b) private lessons + skills-based courses (orchestration, counterpoint, analysis). Graduate programs often will more likely resemble the latter of these two models—lessons + required theory/musicology courses + skills-based courses—with additional elective seminars, usually in theory or electroacoustic subject areas. These models, while adequate for increasing the students’ objective knowledge and hopefully giving them subjective opportunities for artistic growth, usually do very little to address career-based needs. To put it another way, most composition programs are built along the business model of South Park’s underpants gnomes [collect underpants + ? = profit].

While there is obviously no one solution when it comes to incorporating entrepreneurism into the educational experience, a curriculum could be improved by both course-based and project-based opportunities for composition students. While many universities offer a basic music business class, composers could be asked to take courses in business, marketing, graphic design, or even copyright law, either as electives or as specific requirements. A composer today is a small business owner to some degree and the coursework they take might need to reflect that new reality.

As valuable as these courses might be, their potential worth would only be fully realized if combined with experiential projects that require composers to create their own entrepreneurial goals and follow them through. Whether these projects are collaborative in nature or lean solely on the wits and wherewithal of the individual, they will, in effect, drop the student “into the deep end” and force them to fend for themselves in ways that no classroom project or assignment could. A good resource for projects like this is David Cutler’s The Savvy Musician; both David’s blog and his book by the same name are full of examples, ideas, and questions that any burgeoning musician can find useful.

This brings up an important question: should a composition curriculum be concerned with career issues at all? Some might argue that the composers need to be focused like a laser beam on becoming world-class practitioners of their art. I can see their point—some composers have done very well by simply putting their blinders on, focusing on their artistic output, and winning over performers, conductors, and publishers through the sheer brilliance of their work. But more often than not, composers today who have become successful have done so because they have been able to teach themselves how to collaborate, how to network, and how to look at their own skills and talents objectively and recognize how they can fit within the greater musical community.

Examples of this new entrepreneurial mindset abound, from multi-layered composer-run organizations like Bang on a Can and New Amsterdam to self-publishing mavens like Jennifer Higdon and John Mackey, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Not everyone who intends on having a career in composition will be successful, but by incorporating these ideas into composition training, chances for success should be strengthened.

Teaching the Composers

In my previous column I presented a few suggestions as to how the role of a composer in higher education could be expanded by integrating composition into the music education curriculum. I should point out, however, that as important as introducing the basic concepts of composing and musical creativity to budding music educators is, the primary goal for a composition faculty should still be the instruction and guidance of student composers. For many students and teachers in composition education, this primary goal can seem at cross-purposes with itself. It is this natural internal conflict that makes the teaching of composition so challenging—and yet there is currently very little focus given to preparing potential composition educators for that challenge.

One of the toughest parts of teaching composition—indeed, teaching any artistic medium—is not only teaching the subject, but guiding the implementation and ultimately the transcendence of the subject material; in other words, not only teaching someone how to compose, but how to be a composer. There are many nuanced reasons for this, but much of it has to do with the indirect nature of how we learn, and subsequently how many educators teach, composition. Regardless of the various processes that are available to composers that allow for the creation of material, at some point each artist is forced to make their own decisions, take risks, and hope that it will work. It is that aspect of risk-taking—to allow oneself or one’s students to make mistakes—that can often hold back both students and educators from doing their best work.

Earlier this week, my new NMBx colleague Isaac Schankler illustrated the strong effect that mentor composers have on their students. His description of how well-meaning instructors inadvertently triggered feelings of self-doubt must sound familiar to many current and former students as well as educators. The same self-doubt can be found in many composition instructors when they first start teaching. Even though they may have just finished numerous years of graduate study, once they start teaching they realize that their coursework never prepared them for one-on-one instruction with student composers with varying degrees of experience.

It is this gap in composition education that can and should to be addressed. A few years ago I decided to begin a graduate course in the pedagogy of composition to compliment the music theory pedagogy course that graduate students were required to take. In my preparation, I was dismayed to find very little current research on the subject (with the exception of music education research on composition in general education) and only one existing course in the subject being taught at the college level. Led by Jim Mobberley at the University of Missouri-Kansas City Conservatory of Music, it is an extremely well structured course that includes hands-on experiences with teaching in both individual and classroom environments (graduates teaching undergrads, undergrads teaching pre-college students) as well as discussions on assessment, curriculum, and methodologies.

While it may all sound a bit…well, academic…this topic is very important to the future of new music because the large majority of creative artists who will be shaping music will at some point study composition at the collegiate level and, whether or not their work will exist because of or in reaction to their experiences in academia, we as a community need to be aware of the deficiencies that exist and strive to improve them—not only in composition pedagogy, as I’ve mentioned here, but also in educating composers in entrepreneurship, which I will cover in next week’s post.

On Not Being a Student Composer

Isaac SchanklerYou have seen Isaac Schankler’s name on this site before. A few months ago, we published his “Anatomy of a Truth-Bender,” an illuminating reaction to the scientific, musical, and aesthetic misconceptions put forth in a Wall Street Journal column concerned with the tear-jerking power of Adele’s hit song “Someone Like You.” We enjoyed his ideas and his writing so much that we invited him to come on board the NMBx ship as a regular contributor, and we are excited to debut his column this week.

Schankler is a composer and improviser based in Los Angeles, California. He is the artist-in-residence at the University of Southern California’s Music Computation and Cognition Laboratory, and an artistic director of the concert series People Inside Electronics.

He can also be found at twitter.com/piesaac.—MS

This is my first post. Colin Holter’s final post about being a student composer gave me a great deal to think about, and many of his statements resonated strongly with my experience as well. My current vantage point is a little different; while I’m loosely affiliated with a university, I’m neither a faculty member nor a student at the moment. For now, I’m more or less a freelance composer, with all the uncertainty and freedom that implies. I graduated with a terminal degree (I love the morbidity of calling an education “terminal”) two years ago, which is just long enough ago that I’m finally beginning to feel somewhat objective about the whole experience.

I distinctly remember the vague terror I felt just before graduation, and the sense of liberation immediately afterwards, the slight adrenaline rush when I suddenly realized for the first time that I could write whatever I want without anyone looking over my shoulder. In the past couple of years I’ve written a three-hour mostly silent piece, a piece for accordions and electronics based on a YouTube video, a microtonal choral piece, a chamber opera about Nikola Tesla, and a video game soundtrack, among other things. I’m not sure I would have taken many of these risks as a student. Which is not to say my teachers would have discouraged me, exactly. The attitude I imagine could probably be best described as “bemused disinterest.”

Unlike Colin, I don’t think I was a good student. In terms of grades or accolades I did okay, but I was stubborn, and if I think about it in a certain way, my education becomes a series of well-meaning mentors trying fruitlessly to stop me from making questionable decisions. One expressed bafflement when I followed up a serene antecedent phrase with a gut-wrenchingly dissonant consequent phrase. Some seemed disappointed in me when, after writing a piece in a particular idiom, my next piece turned out to be something completely different. One once said to me, “If you’re excited about it, that’s the important thing.” At the time I interpreted this as giving me the go-ahead, but in retrospect I wonder if he was just giving up.

Despite my stubbornness, I was certainly affected by my teachers’ words. For one thing, it instilled in me nagging doubts about my own musical instincts. Certainly my most disastrous pieces resulted from not listening to those instincts. Instead of trusting my own ear, I attempted to try on somebody else’s ear, and the absurdity of that image should tell you how well that turned out. (I feel similarly when exhorted to think about “my audience”—how am I supposed to know how other people hear my music, or any music for that matter?) Predictably, sometimes the resistance to my “bad” ideas ossified my determination to carry them out, like a rebellious teenager; but like a child, I also felt a dim sense of shame.

My concern is that one of my former teachers will read this and take it the wrong way, but this is not so much a criticism of their instruction as a dissection of my failure as a pupil, for selectively listening and absorbing the wrong lessons from their expertise. I know now from both sides of the arrangement that it’s incredibly difficult to teach composition. As a student, the approach that seemed to work best with me was Socratic, where the teacher is almost more like a therapist, following up every answer with another question. Score study was another incredibly helpful activity, and I wish I’d pursued this with more diligence. Analyzing and taking apart the music of other composers exercises similar mental muscles as composition, without the defensiveness and protective feelings that inevitably result when someone else tries to take apart your music. When I teach, I try to model these approaches as best as I can, but I’m not always successful at keeping my own personal dogma out of it.

And in the end, your students will probably know how you feel anyway. Eventually I learned to recognize when my teachers were holding back from giving me advice that I probably wouldn’t have taken. In a sense this was almost worse than direct criticism; if I had been challenged more, then at least I could have fought back! I know that puts my teachers in an impossible position, where what they don’t say is just as powerful as what they do. As a result, I’d just like to issue a blanket apology to all my ex-teachers for my intransigence. Thanks for putting up with me!

Teaching the Teachers

Last week I touched on composition education at the college level as a result of two other articles by Colin Holter and Alexandra Gardner. Colin’s perceptive column demonstrated a very common attitude—the never-ending quest for recognition and approval—in college-age composers. Gardner’s piece describes the awkward interaction between composers who thrive outside of academia and other musicians who assume that a university gig is the only option for the career-minded composer. Both articles are indicative of composition’s seemingly intractable relationship with higher education and the various assumptions that thrive both within and without. My own column suggested that it is these assumptions, and the teaching and learning habits that accompany them, that have inadvertently shaped both the state of and attitudes toward college-level composition education.

I also mentioned several concepts—feasibility, relevancy, and sustainability—which have become important touch-points in any discussion of composition education. Depending on whom you talk to along the student-teacher-administrator-professional continuum, there are many questions that these concepts bring up: Should we encourage students to study composing? Can they really be “taught” to be composers? Have we created an assembly line where the finished products (composers with graduate degrees) have little-to-no chance of employment? Do we even need to employ composers at universities since there are enough theorists to teach the courses that were traditionally taught by composers in years past? Hard questions, to be sure, and answering them all would take way more space than I care to take up, but I do have a few suggestions—three, in fact—which might help to re-contextualize the questions in a new way.

My first suggestion is to re-think the role of composer within the university music department. By my observations, there seem to be two basic models that are most common at colleges and universities in the United States: those who teach theory and ear-training classes and those who do not. Both teach composition lessons to majors, and those who do not teach theory/AS courses may simply have more majors to teach, teach related courses in orchestration or electronic music, or direct the new music ensemble. If the faculty composer does teach theory/AS, most music students tend to associate them with arcane rules, Roman numerals, and bleary-eyed early-morning classes during their first two years of study. If the faculty composer does not teach theory/AS, their interactions with students outside of their own studio is minimal, with exceptions including the occasional premiere with a student ensemble or a small cadre of new-music aficionados that might crop up from time to time.

There is, however, another area of the music department within which the faculty composer could become an important component: music education. Most composers don’t realize that there are national standards, created by the National Association for Music Education (formerly MENC), that outline the skills that primary and secondary music educators should be able to teach to their students in the public schools and that “composing and arranging music within specified guidelines” is currently National Standard #4.

This situation creates several needs. Student educators need to be able to incorporate composing into their classroom—not as a lecture tool or a demonstration, but by giving their students opportunities to compose. In order to do this, the educators need to not only be comfortable with the art and craft of composition and arranging on their own, but also understand how to teach composition to young students. It would not be difficult to formulate creative ways to incorporate a composition faculty into the music education curriculum through beginning composition courses, guest lectures in methods courses, workshops, projects, and collaborations between student composers and educators.

The issue is that there is hardly any communication, much less interaction, between composers and music educators at the college level. Most music educators view composing as something that only the truly gifted can do and subsequently don’t even consider pursuing it as a skill, even though conducting, arguably an equally daunting skill, is seen as commonplace. Most students in pre-college education have never met a composer, much less seen them work; by the time prospective music educators reach their undergraduate studies, they have no model for what a composer does. Conversely, many composers actively encourage the concept of “composing for the truly gifted” and make no pretense about their disdain for anything smacking of “educational music.” This is completely understandable, I admit, as there is so much uncreative music in band and choral folders across the country, but the situation has become such that even well written music for younger musicians is looked down upon.

Opening up communications between educators in composition and music education at the collegiate level is important for several reasons. It would help music educators to learn an important (and required) skill. When they then later teach their students to compose, over time the size of the general population that appreciates what a composer does (and realizes that you don’t have to be dead to do) will grow. These students will be more creative, more intuitive, and understand both music and themselves much more than they did before. Composers would do well to open up their own views and creativity to not only focus on the most experienced audiences and performers, but on the general population as well. This is most easily done at an early age, and therefore it is through working with those who will teach those young students that a composer will have a more lasting effect.

In this STEM-centric world we now live in, the very idea of pursuing study in the humanities or the arts is continually being called into question and composition, by most accounts, is a peripheral vestige, a luxury, an oddity that few, even in the musical community, understand or willingly embrace. I have just suggested that by collaborating with music educators, the concept of composer as oddity may be changed. In my next column, I will turn the tables and look at how composition pedagogy—the teaching of professional composers—may be addressed as well.

Excuse the Geek Out, Part 1

notesA couple of weeks ago in these august pixels, Alexandra Gardner asked “How much information does a composer working today attempt to convey to musicians through a written score?” Over the past few years, I’ve been giving a great deal of thought to this question.

In discussing this issue with my composition students, I sometimes begin by asking why they want to notate their music in the first place. In this day and age, we have many different methods by which we may convey information about our music, and printed scores can be relatively inefficient and can be devoid of the sorts of details that are important to the piece itself. Electronic pieces may exist solely as recorded sound, without any accompanying visuals whatsoever. Many rock musicians and other performers from aural traditions prefer to learn songs through collaborative performance and memorization, obviating the need for a score when creating music for these small traveling ensembles. Those of us working in similar genres may choose to eschew written representations of our ideas.

The main reason to create a musical score is to convey our compositional ideas to other performing musicians. Of course, this postulation leads to the next question: What do we consider our compositional ideas? Composers such as John Luther Adams and Arvo Pärt often pen entire pieces without giving the performer even a single dynamic marking. While on the surface these sparsely notated scores might appear to prioritize the pitches and rhythms, in practice these composers create a situation whereby the performer’s articulation, phrasing, and dynamic choices become part of the spiritual nature of bringing the music to life, as these pieces maintain their identity throughout a wide range of varied performances. Other composers attempt to convey their explicit wishes at every moment in the score, utilizing copious attention to detail in order to display the dramatic impetus for their works. I generally find that the more abstract the form of the piece, the more score detail that is necessary in order for the performers to understand their roles within the whole.

In my own music, I generally attempt to create scores that contain enough detail so that I may email PDFs to new performers and they can then perform the composition in a way that will convey my vision for the music. When I feel strongly about how a sound should be articulated, I try to be specific enough so that someone reading the score can hear the intended result. Conversely, when I believe that there are multiple ways of performing a motive that all could work within the context, or when I want a specific type of sound but am not certain as to the best way to achieve that sound (e.g.: I’ve generally found that percussionists have creative solutions for mallet selection that work better in my pieces than my initial thoughts), I try to give the performer the freedom to choose their own preferred solution. In general, when a musician presents multiple ways to play a line while respecting what I’ve put on the page, I ask them which they prefer and we go from there. If it is not in the score, I try to remain open to different ideas as to how something can be performed. If it is in the score, it is generally there because I feel strongly about that particular moment.

There are two situations that I try to convince my students to avoid. First, I attempt to prevent them from over-notating. If a line appears fussy and unmusical, I might ask them to perform it for me. We’ll then spend a little time discussing whether or not they’ve conveyed all the information on the page in an attempt to work towards the essential aspects of that moment. Second, I ask them to put the information that they believe is important into the score itself. When they bring large swaths of music without any dynamics or articulation, I might posit extreme interpretations that performers could bring to bear, in hopes that the student will remain open to all the possibilities conveyed by their score.

Thinking about these issues has led me towards some changes in my own notational style and system. Next week, I’d like to continue this geek out in order to present some of my personal solutions to these questions.

The “A” Word

The advantage of getting to write a column for NMBx at the end of the week is that I can occasionally use a couple of my colleagues’ posts as a springboard, and both Colin Holter and Alexandra Gardner have given us their poignant and excruciatingly relevant takes on studying composition from the vantage points of finally having attained that “terminal” degree and having thrived for years after one’s studies have come to an end. Even though I try not to discuss my own teaching very often here, I’ll take the opportunity to continue this thread from my own position of working with students (both pre-college and undergraduate) at the beginning of their studies.

So often terms like “academia” in composition can be used to paint a picture of a static, one-size-fits-all world, laden with dogmatic faculty and overly ambitious students. Outcomes are not celebrated for their own merit but only as they pertain to the reputation of the teacher and institution and tangible goals such as scholarships, assistantships, competitions and ultimately a tenure-track teaching position or major prize/commission (or both) are emphasized over any broad, intangible goals. Characterizations like this remind me of discussions I see in the media about higher education where everyone in the discussion went to a private, East Coast liberal arts institution. Their experiences, while relevant, are but a slice of the overall situation in higher education. My own concern is not to argue against anyone who makes that stereotype (since it is, unfortunately, pretty accurate for some), but rather to explore how to change the characterization from within through the concerted efforts of both pedagogues and students.

Three of the most important concepts that come up continually in regard to composition education are feasibility, relevancy, and sustainability. There are always questions—many times from composers themselves—as to the feasibility of degree programs in composition since, as the old saw goes, “One cannot teach how to compose.” In a similar vein, the relevancy of our profession is continually called into question because of the dwindling amount of audience real estate for contemporary concert music as it competes with the established classical canon from one direction and the various forms of popular music on the other. Finally, parents of potential students are constantly asking what the economic future is for their child if they decide to become a composition major; since there are myriad ways by which an individual can create their own career as a composer—none of which are totally stable and consistent—this question is increasingly relevant.

I do feel that there are several ways that these issues can and should be addressed at all levels of composition education—pre-college through doctoral programs. In next week’s column, I will posit several suggestions as to how educators, students, and professionals can help to change and improve not only the state of composition education in this country but also, with any luck, the state of contemporary concert music as a whole as well.

This Is the End: On Having Been a Student Composer

This is my last post. Rereading my very first post—March 15, 2006—I’m reminded just how much time has passed since I started making these weekly attempts to better understand contemporary music. By March 2006 I’d been a student composer for four and a half years already, and that’s how I’ve spent the intervening six years. I won’t be one for much longer, though: My doctoral dissertation defense is scheduled for today. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be leaving student composerhood behind me forever. It’s my last chance to offer some personal retrospection on the difficulties and contradictions of being a student composer; I hope you don’t mind.

I am an excellent student. My SAT and GRE scores are, by a wide margin, the best things about me. The only B you’ll find on my transcripts—and that’s going all the way back to ninth grade—is attached to my first semester of composition instruction with James Dillon. Competitive merit-based awards have allowed me to pass through several public research universities without accruing any debt. But now I’m a doctor, not a student, and it doesn’t do you any good to be an excellent student if you’re not a student. It does you good to be an excellent composer.

I am not an excellent composer. I’m a composer with a lot of bright ideas and a very low successful-piece-to-bright-idea ratio. Anyone who knows my music will tell you this: It’s a stew of half-formulated hypotheses, faulty assumptions about what is and isn’t perceptible, and too-clever moves that neither fulfill nor challenge conventional experiential expectations. It would be really swell to assert that after eleven years of higher education in music I’ve become an excellent composer, but I can’t.

It’s a commonplace that most of us write music in order to be heard, in order to give ourselves a voice in society. (The rhetoric of composers in underrepresented demographic groups often makes this desire explicit: They want to claim a channel on a cultural mixing board, so to speak, from which they’ve been unjustly excluded.) However, equally true but more uncomfortable to admit is the fact that we also write music in order to be overheard. Looking back at eleven years of student pieces, it seems that in every case—without exception—I made aesthetic decisions in the hope that they’d be overheard and respected by my teachers, peers, and cultural superiors. As a devoted student, head-pats (explicit or implicit, of commission or omission) from one’s mentors are a powerful motivator. Unfortunately this need for approbation from the field is piped so subtly and deeply into one’s sense of self that one doesn’t even realize it’s activating one’s dopamine receptors.

I wish there were a lesson in this, but I don’t know that there is: I was rarely aware of my need to be overheard, and even when I was, I developed elaborate, unconscious ways of reorienting my ideology of music to rationalize this pathetic scramble for approval. Any warning I could offer would necessarily fall on deaf ears, just as it would have if someone had tried to warn me back in 2002. Maybe you’re like me in this regard and maybe you’re not; if you are, though, you probably don’t recognize it. And now, of course, if I needed someone to overhear me, I’d have to reach out to a virtuoso soloist or the artistic director of an ensemble; if I needed to be patted on the head, I’d have to align what I do with what I think festival organizers or publishers want to see. It wouldn’t be psychologically healthy, in any case. It’s time to stop worrying about being overheard. That’s what I’ve learned since 2006.

These observations and reflections weren’t easily pried out of my experience of student composerhood. The mental exercise of writing a few hundred words a week for NewMusicBox was utterly instrumental in developing the critical perspective necessary to finish this journey. I want to extend my most sincere thanks to Molly, Frank, and all of NewMusicBox’s staff for giving me the latitude to speculate and polemicize, to my fellow bloggers for giving me plenty to scratch my head over, and to everyone who read the ever-shifting contents of my brain here. If you see me around, say hi.

Anthologies and the Problem of Pre-Fab Teaching

booksIt’s easy to see anthologizing as the first step on the road to canonization. When a contemporary piece is placed in a collection of the type to which Rob Deemer has by now famously contributed, it gets transmitted as a stable, printed score, and finds itself positioned adjacent to music that traditionally qualifies as monumental—large-scale, orchestral, German—and at the end of a perceived narrative of progress, decadence, decay (and rebirth?). It becomes a Work, and might as well be stamped with a morose likeness of Beethoven and brushed with a patina of dust and sauerkraut.

The anthology, in this view, is deeply problematic, and much of the criticism of Rob’s choices operates from this position. Those who remark on the dearth of European composers on his list, for instance, project a sense of indignation that a whole category of artists might not be considered worthy of immortalizing. Those who complain about the lack of improvised music (more on that below) and examples of other techniques betray a concern that nonstandard creative approaches will not be recognized as skillful.

More problematic than the anthology, in my view, is what this kind of critique assumes about the activity of history and theory pedagogy. The unarticulated assumption is that the anthology will be used in the service of a narrative of great works and geniuses, a kind of chronological tour of the Classical Music Hall of Fame, and that those contained inside the paper walls are proven masters, while those without aren’t worthy of attention.

One way to soothe the outrage is to recognize another function of the anthology, to view it as an aid to a particular type of teaching: as an outline of a context-driven narrative. What if we take anthologies as the beginning of discussions, not the ending? I don’t mean, exclusively, the kinds of discussions happening on NewMusicBox; I mean discussions in the classroom. Anthologies provide examples of trends, and provide students—and, more importantly, educators—with starting points on various topics. They will always be inadequate representations of musical praxis, and their inadequacy should be a regular source of conversation: Why does the collection contain so few women composers? So few non-European composers? Why isn’t there more organ repertoire? More saxophone repertoire? More kazoo music? Why is there only German art song? Why is there so little popular music? So little non-Western music? Some of these questions are easier to answer than others, but they—and many more—are all worth articulating in the classroom. Moreover, I venture to guess that every anthology compiler wishes desperately for this type of inquiry to take place.

card catalogThis is the crucial connection between anthologies and another of the controversial topics explored in previous NewMusicBox columns (Rob’s included): when probing questions are not encouraged, those types of voices that are typically absent from the telling of history—the non-male, non-European, queer, or generally unprivileged—will only continue to be absent. The more we teach history and theory as a study of great musical works and discrete moments of genius, the less satisfied those who raised objections to Rob’s post will be, and the more we all stand to lose.

Take the complaint about the lack of improvised music among Rob’s choices. This is a fair criticism, particularly as improvisation has a long history. In fact, it’s fair to say that, in the very long tradition of social music-making, strict notation is the exception. Yet, ironically, examples of improvised practices do not often grace the pages of anthologies, in part because of logistical difficulties. Though a significant part of Mozart’s and Bach’s musical activity, for instance, we can only guess at the exact form of each composer’s on-the-spot larger-scale creations. Furthermore, when printed in an anthology, even the music that would have been improvised, like a cadenza or operatic embellishment, ends up looking fixed, for the anthology, in subsuming everything under one heading, problematically suggests that all music approaches the printed page in the same way.

If a history teacher doesn’t take the trouble to situate works in the context of the performance practices, institutions, nations or courts with which they are associated, students are deprived not only of broad cultural knowledge, but of an opportunity to be informed about non-musical reasons for certain parameters of musical style. (An example might be John Cage’s famous anecdote about the reasons behind the piano preparations in Bacchanale.)

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; anyone who knows enough to run a history or theory course knows more repertoire than that which is contained in an anthology, and could formulate valid objections to the contents of any textbook.

It has been articulated in the comments to Rob’s piece, but it’s worth saying again: bravo to Mark Evan Bonds for attempting to keep the anthology so current, and bravo to Rob for being so open about the reasons for his choices. It’s up to the rest of us to do the real work: to place these pieces in context, and make our complaints into curricula.

This Is Just The Beginning

The past few weeks have demonstrated that there are discussions—good, meat-on-the-bone discussions—to be had about contemporary concert music and the creative artists whose work is so important to our cultures and aesthetic well being. That the recent conversations about bringing attention to composers with lists both big and small have induced such passionate reactions and dialogues only proves how vital these debates are. I very much appreciate the many varied and disparate viewpoints that have percolated through the comment threads of both columns, and recognize their value in staving off complacency as well as reevaluating one’s own observations and conclusions.

So…where do we go from here? As interesting as the previous exchanges have been, they only scratch the surface of what can be done to gain a better self-knowledge of who we are as a music community and ultimately expand our audiences and their appreciation of our work. While conversations between composers can be both useful and fruitful, we should not forget to address those who are not composers themselves or who are not intimately aware of the new music community. It is my hope, then, that we can find ways to introduce who we are and what we do to others in a way that is simple, educational, and enticing.

One quote from the comments section of my column last week brought me up short:

Being somewhat jaded from decades as a musician and manager, and in no way a great admirer of contemporary music. I was very positively surprised when I listened to Lisa Bielawa’s double violin concerto and Corey Dargel’s piece.

There may be hope for contemporary music yet!

Appearing as it did right in the middle of some pretty energetic debate, this reader’s reaction effectively encapsulated the point of the column—to introduce composers and works to those who were unaware of them with the hope that they would want to learn more. This individual did not like new music and yet was not only reading an article on NewMusicBox but seemed willing to listen to the audio files on the off-chance they were to his liking. Much in the same way that Drew McManus’s Adapstration site promotes “Take a Friend to the Orchestra,” we can find ways to bring those new to our field to the table, make them comfortable with taking risks, and allowing our own enthusiasms to spread in non-traditional ways.

In addition to inviting in new audiences, expanding our own discourses to bring together artists from across the aesthetic and artistic spectrum should be a constant priority. While we can’t expect every project to be all-inclusive, we as a community can strive to make sure our colleagues are aware of who’s out there and what new contributions are being made to our art. A great post by Jennie Gottschalk on her blog Sound Expanse made several cogent points to this end and made me wonder what more can be done to actively and enthusiastically increase our own awareness, knowledge, and appreciation of those artists who may differ from us in their language, process, and aesthetic.


In some ways, new music (however one might define such a thing) has been able to reach much further than before, and as the Internet and social media have evolved, so has the access to live and studio recordings, scores, and in many cases the composers themselves. This increased access is promising, but if it is not paired with education and awareness, its impact will be severely stunted. It would be great to hear about ideas you have as far as what forms this education and awareness, directed both inwards and externally, could take. I look forward to hearing your constructive ideas in the comments section below.

Found: Three Examples of 21st-Century Music

My last column discussed a project that I have been taking part in which is not only a challenge but a valuable opportunity as well. A noted musicologist requested that I submit up to three scores that would adequately represent the musical innovations of the past 10-15 years, and over the past two weeks I’ve been going over lists of composers and their repertoire to see if I could find some common threads that stood out as being both important and new in some way. I would like to take you through my process and show you why I nominated the three works that I did.

First off, when I wrote my last article I was not sure how the author would feel about me discussing details surrounding his new edition. He has since given his approval, so I can tell you that the anthology of which I speak is Mark Evan Bond’s History of Music in Western Culture (forthcoming 4th edition, published by Pearson Education). I have been very excited about Bond’s openness to including recent works in his latest edition, especially considering how widespread the general wisdom is that one cannot judge new works because of their newness (see Tommasini, Anthony).

Evan gave me a lot of latitude but also a few limitations—composers born around or after 1970, works that were short (no longer than seven minutes), scores that would easily fit into the existing anthology pages (14”x8.5”), works that had professional recordings, pieces that would work well in the classroom, and both scores and recordings that would be licensable. Anyone who has gone through the process of writing a book understands how precarious the activity is, so I can say right now that nothing is set in stone—all three composers have agreed to have their works included, but the licensing process may not only take a while but possibly disallow a work from being used. That being said and the ultimate end result not withstanding, I’ll stand behind both my nominated works and the parameters by which I’ve used to select them.

One thing that I did not want to do was to create new labels—the last thing anyone wants or needs is an “ism” that fairly or unfairly groups and pigeon-holes several composers based on one or two works that might in some way be similar. Instead, I decided to look for broad characteristics that overlapped many composers and works, and soon I was able to (subjectively) find enough that stood out to make a list of parameters. From there, I looked for works that, collectively, would cover as many of those parameters as possible. The following are the overarching characteristics that I felt best reflected the innovations of the past decade.

Use of Technology. Out of all the innovations that have affected concert music since the mid-nineties, one would be hard-pressed to find a more pervasive one than digital technology. Even discounting digital notation software, PDF technology, and the Internet (each one having had an immense effect on composers), there has been an explosion of methods with which to incorporate technology into the creative process and product. Ranging from simple aural enhancements and “with tape” pieces to basic looping software and the most far-flung digital transmutations, composers and performers alike have been slowly becoming acclimated to the ubiquity of microphones and laptops in the studio and on the stage—encouraging one another to employ the increasingly easy-to-use technology to explore new sound worlds, textures, and concepts.

Some examples that just touch the surface might include:

1-bit Symphony by Tristan Perich

Elsewhere is a Negative Mirror, Part 1 by Per Bloland

Lightning Slingers and Dead Ringers by Annie Gosfield

Ecstatic Waters by Steven Bryant

Tourmaline by Alexandra Gardner

FONO by Angelica Negron

Rusty Air in Carolina by Mason Bates

Strange Imaginary Animals Remix by Dennis DeSantis

Influence of Chamber Ensembles. As contemporary concert music became more widely accepted at universities in the 1990s, performers who caught the “new music” bug began to form their own chamber ensembles. With the Kronos Quartet (founded in 1973) and Bang on a Can All-Stars (since 1992) as their precursors, some ensembles began to combine the structural, attitudinal, and marketing models of traditional chamber groups with other models such as “indie” rock bands and multi-tiered non-profit organizations, while others strove to raise the perception of their ensemble and its repertoire to the level of more established genres.

By the mid-1990s, grad students from Oberlin formed eighth blackbird and International Contemporary Ensemble and that Alarm Will Sound was organized by students from Eastman. Older ensembles such as the PRISM Saxophone Quartet (University of Michigan) and the Meridian Arts Ensemble (Juilliard), which came to prominence in the early ’90s, were now joined by So Percussion and NOW Ensemble (both formed at Yale) and later by others which coalesced in various locations around the country—Newspeak, ETHEL, JACK Quartet, Dither Quartet, and Janus Trio are just a few that hail from New York City, Dinosaur Annex and Firebird Ensemble from Boston, Great Noise Ensemble in Washington, D.C., Ensemble Dal Niente, Third Coast Percussion, and Fifth House Ensemble out of Chicago, Earplay from San Francisco, and Musiqa from Houston.

What was most important about the formation of these ensembles was not only their proximity in age and attitude with emerging composers, but their aggressive commissioning and nurturing of new works. While most orchestras and many established chamber ensembles became living museums for music of the past, these new groups allow composers to experiment and expand their musical vocabulary without the pressures or attitudes that exist in many areas of the traditional concert world.

A few of the many works that have emerged out of these collaborations include:

Divinum Mysterium by Daniel Kellogg (eighth blackbird)

So-Called Laws of Nature by David Lang (So Percussion)

Chamber Concerto Cycle by Huang Ruo (ICE)

Son of Chamber Symphony by John Adams (Alarm Will Sound)

Animal Vegetable Mineral by Steven Mackey (PRISM Quartet)

Songs from the Uproar: The Lives and Deaths of Isabelle Eberhardt by Missy Mazzoli (NOW Ensemble)

Influence of Popular and Non-Western Music. While the idea of combining popular or ethnic music with classical/concert music has been around for a very long time, since the late 1990s it has become infused into the mindset of many composers and ensembles. Because of the wide range of influences that composers have had at their fingertips, it is difficult to even begin to describe the myriad ways in which either popular music or musics from non-Western cultures have left and continue to leave their mark on concert music. Characteristics can range from texture to harmony to instrumentation to rhythm and so on—even the concept of writing a work with the intended result being a recording and not a live performance.

Some examples of works that demonstrate such characteristics include:

Craiglistlieder by Gabriel Kahane

Dog Days by David T. Little

Folk Music by Judd Greenstein

Mothertongue by Nico Muhly

A House in Bali by Evan Ziporyn (includes Balinese Gamelan)

Tracing Mississippi by Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate (incorporates American Indian music)

Emphasis on IndividualComposer/Performer. Related to the influence of popular music is how much composers have relied on the specific eccentricities of a particular performer in order to shape a work; this often includes asking for special techniques or skills that a particular performer has mastered (including improvisation, extended techniques, or stylistic performance traits). This has encouraged many performers to search for performance techniques that would allow them to stand out from the crowd—an example would be the growing number of violinists, violists, and cellists who have learned to sing while playing their instrument.

In addition, there are an increasing number of composer/performers who sculpt some of their works around their own personal abilities on their instrument. This unique situation gives the composer much flexibility as they create, but it also results in the possibility that the works may not enjoy an afterlife with other performers. Finally, we have seen a similar increase in individuals who make a name for themselves on their instrument first and use the opportunities they have as performers to hone their skills as composers—percussionist Jason Treuting, hornist Matt Marks, and violinist/violist Caleb Burhans are three of several outstanding examples of those who blur the edges of “performer” and “composer” to a great degree.

Examples of works that emphasized an individual performer’s voice include:

Thracian Sketches by Derek Bermel

Reverse Swastikas Mark the Place of Buddhist Temples by Ken Ueno

Mouthpiece IX by Erin Gee

Cosmosis by Susan Botti

Subharmonic Partita by Mari Kimura

The Little Death, Vol. 1 by Matt Marks

Of course there are many other characteristics that I haven’t listed here that are evident in many scores written over the past 15 years. Tonal languages, processes based on spectral analysis, stylistic hybridization, extensive use of pre-existing sounds or musical material…the list is long. However, when it came down to it, it wasn’t that difficult to pick three pieces that as a whole enveloped all of these concepts in some form or fashion. In fact the hardest part was to find works that fit within the requested duration limit—all three ended up being short movements of larger works (a string quartet, a double concerto, a song cycle). As of yesterday, all three have been enthusiastically endorsed by the author as being “diverse, as representative as a mere three works can be, they’re not long, and they’ll have immediate appeal in the classroom.”

One last note: There have been many works written throughout the last 15 years that barely touch the characteristics I’ve listed. If anything, composers have become comfortable choosing from the musical smorgasbord that has accumulated over the past several centuries.  I wanted to be clear that the works below do not connote the “Best of…”, but rather they represent what is new and, from this writer’s perspective, could be indicators of what is to come.

Final Selection.

1. Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout, mvt. 4 “Chasqui (2001) by Gabriela Lena Frank (b. 1972)

Written for the Chiara Quartet, Leyendas: An Andean Walkabout is one of several works by Frank that reflect her interest in her Peruvian heritage; “Chasqui” not only depicts an extra-musical narrative but asks for traditional Western instruments to sound like traditional Peruvian instruments (the charango and quena).

2. Double Violin Concerto, mvt. 2 “Song” (2008) by Lisa Bielawa (b. 1968)


Double Violin Concerto Mvt. II, Song from In Medias Res


Part of a larger work that was crafted around two very different and complimentary violinists (Colin Jacobsen and Carla Kihlstedt – a composer in her own right), “Song” not only asks Kihlstedt to play with a quarter-tone scordatura but also to sing while she is playing.

3. Every Day is the Same Day, mvt. 3 “On This Date Every Year” (2010) by Corey Dargel (b. 1977)

In response to Cornelius Dufallo’s request for a work as part of his “Journaling” series, Dargel created a large-scale song cycle for himself to sing with Dufallo on violin (multiple violin lines are layered using Ableton Live software during each performance); Dargel writes the texts of his songs as well as the music and is known for his ability to use dry humor to comment on controversial or socially uncomfortable subject matter.