Tag: experimentation

Structure and Freedom in Collaboration (A.k.a. The Incomplete Non-Idiot’s Guide to Workshopping with Musicians)

A shadow image of two performers, one cellist and one pianist

Early on in my career, I made the mistake of writing a lot of very melodic music for performers who were more predisposed to Berio than to Berlioz. Despite everyone’s optimism and best efforts, these projects were usually stressful and rarely among my most successful.

I used to think, perhaps narcissistically, that it was exclusively the job of the players I was working with to make my music sound good—that I should write whatever my little composer heart saw fit and then leave it to them to figure it out. We are, after all, taught in class that Bach is God and that musicians are the vessels through which the deity speaks. These early projects, however, taught me that in the real world the reverse is often true, and that it’s a huge part of YOUR job, if not literally the entire job, to write something that will make the players you are working with sound great. Ideally if you are successful in doing that, you will make yourself sound far better in the process as well.

There’s a lot that can go right and wrong when collaborating with musicians in pursuit of the above. However, I’ve found for myself that there are a lot of consistent questions to ask and methods to employ along that winding road to hopefully making “Good Art” that can increase one’s chances of staying the course. Ultimately a lot is common sense and falls under a consistent umbrella: you will never be wasting time by really getting to know your players, writing for them specifically, considering the specific parameters of the project, being sure of what you want to do while remaining open to input and creative detours, and experimenting with techniques to make all that happen.

For me the solution to the above, besides planning well early on, has been to workshop music I’m working on extensively with musicians while learning to be a good collaborator—a lifelong undertaking in itself.

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Before getting there, however, there are a lot of obvious questions to be asked about who I’m writing for, what their aesthetic comfort zone is and how it relates to my own, what the circumstances of the performance/session are, how many rehearsals you get, whether it’s a pick up group or not, as well as the most interesting one: is this a player(s) who wants to be challenged or not? Some musicians will get bored if you’re not writing something that stretches them. Others may feel best about music that’s easy to keep alive in their fingertips. No one wants to put the time in to play something well that they don’t feel “fits them.” For me the most exciting things always happen when you’re working with players you can push a little beyond their comfort zones and who can push you past yours.

Ideally you meet each other part way, with a piece that sounds like you, but is tailored to the performer.

I am a huge believer in workshops if you can do them, because they’re really the best way to get into the weeds with a piece of music and collaborator(s). If you’re writing something good, you can file that away and develop it. If you are writing something stupid, they’re a great chance to pretend that never happened and course correct. Overall they’re invaluable opportunities to try things on your “growing edge” while getting to know the strengths, styles, and limitations of the people you’re working with and figuring out how to mold your writing to their hands. This does not mean sacrificing your voice, so much as playing with how it can be bent and expanded and trying things that you don’t already know how to do, which I’ve found always leads to better and more interesting pieces than I could have written alone with Sibelius. Ideally you meet each other part way, with a piece that sounds like you, but is tailored to the performer.

For workshops to be successful, I’ve found that doing three is best. One with early sketches, one about 1/2 – 2/3 of the way through the composing process, and one when you are almost finished to fine-tune. They are always short (musicians are busy), I record them, and in planning for them, aim to be over prepared but leave space for sounds and ideas that are unexpected to emerge. A balance between order and chaos.

The order side is easy: parts need to be clean, any technical electronic elements must be road-tested, and the writing must be well-developed/written enough that players can feel the bones of what you are trying to say. And you should have some idea of how you want to structure and lead rehearsals, since some material is invariably better approached “cold” than others. I try to start with something easy that I know will work. You should also be as sure as you can that you’re writing idiomatically, since no matter how keen you are to expand the possibilities of the harp, if your harpist is tap dancing all over the place because she needs to be some sort of eight-footed octopus to cover her pedal changes (I know, I know, harps only have 7 pedals), you’re both going to sound like garbage. And not in the cool Shirley Manson way.

Facilitating the unexpected is harder and in itself an endlessly broad subject, but to get there some of the things I try include:

Giving players a few looping musical “cells” from the piece to improvise with, or perhaps leaving some holes or incomplete endings in musical phrases (ones that feel as though they could be jumping off points), then asking them where it “feels” (excuse the flowery language) like it wants to go. Even if they’re not improvisers, musicians obviously have a deeper and more intuitive grasp of their instrument than you do and sometimes just hearing where their hands wander naturally can give you a sense for how to better tailor your writing to their instrument and personal playing style, while still keeping it within your own language.

Coming in with specific techniques that you are interested in exploring that feel as though they could fit the music you are writing, even if they’re not developed, has also proven useful for me. Sometimes I’ll have the earliest sections of a piece formed, and then ideas for some more bombastic moments later on that I don’t yet know how to pull off. Putting some half-realized stabs at them on a page to give the general sense (something like the rough under-painting a painter might do), and then honing the details from there with a great player’s input has proven productive.

I tried all of the above, for one, with violinist Jenny Choi, who—after telling me that it felt like a section of my solo piece for her wanted to open up—gave me a crash course in barriolages before I really knew how to write them well and was a great cheerleader who encouraged me to follow the lines of what I was writing as far as I could take them. I did something similar with a piece for harpist Ashley Jackson, wherein I wanted to try some more folksy, virtuosic, uptempo writing that I wanted to explode off the page. In both cases, I had specific techniques that I wanted to try and vague ideas of where to place them, and through fumbling around in the dark was able to put all the pieces together and find moments for them to really take off. Had it not been for the input of those players, the music I wrote would sound vastly more closed off.

This also takes different forms when working with rock bands—a different, but related story. Players from this world improvise by nature, so balancing space and structure in a musical road map becomes even more important. You have to know exactly where you want to go in the big picture sense, while being open to how you get there with the details. In approaching how to work on my own record, for example, some things I tried included: bringing in a sketch of a melody or lead line and asking players to embellish, demoing a synth sound/part myself to establish a general direction and then having someone else work around or replace that, or literally just building in space for a band to jump on some sort of groove and build out an arrangement collaboratively. David Bottrill, who I co-produced my project with, also had some great tricks, my favorite of which was sitting on the floor and changing guitar pedal settings mid-performance to see if that sparked anything unexpected. It usually did.

Ultimately, it’s all about learning the art of being a great collaborator, checking your ego at the door, remaining open to unexpected ideas, and recognizing that all musical partnerships are opportunities for growth.

In all instances the material you are working from has to be something that feels open-ended rather than resolved, as though it could “lead somewhere.” It’s a hard line to navigate: come in with nothing/too little and players won’t know what to do. Come in with too much, and they won’t have space to try anything and will get bored.

Ultimately—and here’s where we all say ‘kum ba yah’—it’s all about learning the art of being a great collaborator, checking your ego at the door, remaining open to unexpected ideas, and recognizing that all musical partnerships are opportunities for growth—sentiments that were missing from those early, rocky projects of mine. Partnerships between composers and musicians work best when both parties feel stretched and challenged, everyone is receptive to ideas but in control of their voice and what they want to say, no one should be pandering or selling their ideas or talents short, and the end result is something that’s been executed well that everyone feels pride in/ownership of. It’s often messy, and along the way there are conversations about whether you should be writing to please yourself or other people, how exactly you are supposed to get there, and when to push people and when not to, all of which require different answers project by project. The hard part is knowing which is which, what the players you are working with are capable of, and what you are capable of yourself.

Beyond the 88: A No-Fear Guide to On-the-String Piano Techniques

Hand inside the piano

The beginner’s toolbox of preparations I’ve talked about in the previous two (1, 2) articles might be, in some ways, less scary to many pianists and composers than playing inside the piano because, once the foreign objects (paper, aluminum foil, glass rods, plastic straws, etc.) have been placed on or in between the strings, the pianist plays the instrument pretty much as usual. This is part of the disconnect—or the magical nature—of Cage’s Sonatas and Interludes. The scores for Cage’s little pieces look so musically simple, and so easy to play. Look at the beginning of Sonata V, for instance, with its right hand melody and accompanying chromatic seesawing left hand—what could be easier?

For now, try turning your sound off and just looking at the first page of the score to Sonata V in this video.

But, what’s not clear from looking at this bit of score is that, in order to play this set of pieces, Cage asks for about 2/3 of the notes of the piano to have their strings prepared by inserting or threading materials between the strings, including various kinds of bolts, screws, bits of rubber and plastic, and an eraser. So, the piece asks for a ton of prep work, but then Cage gives the pianist a simple set of pieces to play on this modified instrument, which the pianist then approaches in much the same way as if she were playing a piece of Clementi. The result, however, is otherworldly.

Now turn your audio volume back up and play the video again.

Preparations are one thing; asking the pianist to reach into the instrument and play directly on the strings, as well as on the wood and other metal surfaces inside the instrument, may seem to be another kettle of shrimp entirely. Much as I started with minimally invasive and generally safe preparations, I’m going to suggest starting with a gentle-slope approach to playing inside the piano—minimal risk of wear and tear on the instrument, with, nevertheless, big timbral results.

First of all, before reaching into the piano, thoroughly wash and dry your hands (duh).

Rule of thumb: avoid touching the soft parts inside the piano—just don’t touch the dampers or any of the felt. The dampers are really delicate and a pain to adjust correctly. The felt is easily compressed, torn, soiled with oils from your hands, or otherwise damaged, and, again, some of the piano’s felt parts are labor-intensive to replace. (And, there’s mostly no reason why you should need to touch these parts in order to play inside the instrument.)

I’m going to stick to techniques that involve playing on the strings here. There are lots of other safe inside-the-piano techniques—ways of making sounds on the metal plate, on the soundboard, and elsewhere—but for now, I’m going to introduce a handful of techniques on the strings that will provide many new timbres to explore.

A pianist can even take advantage of further “training wheels” by wearing thin cotton gloves while experimenting with many of these techniques. When I was writing my book chapter on piano harmonics, I was exploring these on my prized home piano—which, after years of dreaming and saving for, I had just purchased a few weeks before. I admit that even though I had performed inside-the-piano techniques many, many times and had always been careful with other folks’ instruments, I found myself facing potentially harming my own new pride and joy with a conscientious newbie’s extreme temerity. Touching the strings with clean hands shouldn’t do any damage, but it doesn’t take much transfer to the copper windings of the bass strings to open the door to marking the surface of the strings with tarnish. I’ve bought several pairs of these ubiquitous, one-size-fits-all-but-not-particularly-well-for-the-long-fingered-amongst-us cotton gloves for the purpose of experimenting with my new grand, and, really, here’s an investment of $1.49 that has no downside. Wearing a single glove for performance might take a little getting used to, especially if you’ll need both hands on the keyboard for part of a piece, but it is possible to play many of these techniques gloved—protecting the string but without altering the sound.

Piano harmonics  

Lots of scores call for the pianist to sound harmonics. They are quite easy to play and can be sounded with one hand playing on the keys as usual, and a fingertip of the other hand lightly touching a harmonic node of one of the strings.

I won’t go into the physics behind harmonics, or the way that sounding many of the overtones can give the player access to just intonation notes that are pretty distant from their nearest equal tempered neighbors. I’ll leave that to further reading, or your own explorations.

So, put a glove on one hand and reach that hand into the piano. Start on the bass strings, because on these long strings there are lots of partials that will ring loudly on each string. Locate the approximate midpoint of any one of the lowest bass strings, lightly touch that point with a fingertip, and set the string into motion by playing the corresponding key with a finger of your other hand. If you’ve located the midpoint, playing the key should sound the second partial, which will be the octave above the fundamental (in other words, an octave above the string ringing as a whole, here produced by the string in halves). If you want to hear the sound of a second partial harmonic in performance, there’s a repeated 2nd partial harmonic D flat at the beginning of Annea Lockwood’s Red Mesa (1993). Note that this is a high note, not one played on a bass string. Watch a performance by pianist Andrea Lodge here. If you want to get an idea of how fast a pianist can play a single line of harmonics, check out Johan Svensson’s Study No. 2 (2015) available here in a performance by Jonas Olsson.

Depending on how large the grand is that you’re using and the length of your arms, the bass strings may be long enough to require that you stand up to touch the center node of the string. Further your experiments by then slowly moving your gloved finger along the string closer to the keyboard end of the string, while repeatedly sounding the string from the keyboard. You can try to locate the third partial, which sounds a perfect fifth above the second partial you’ve already located. Keep searching for the successive harmonic overtones; one I’m particularly fond of is the 7th partial, which sounds two octaves and a minor seventh above the string’s fundamental, and is 31 cents flatter than the nearest equal tempered note. On the lowest strings of a concert grand piano, it’s possible to sound some very high partials, so there are a lot of harmonics to explore even if you restrict yourself to a single bass string. You could then experiment with playing a simple melody in harmonics on one bass string.

Once you’ve found the first several partials on one bass string and gotten comfortable with sounding those, you can easily locate those same partials on any of the neighboring bass strings.   Play a cluster of three notes by fingering the third partial on three neighboring strings and playing all three keys simultaneously. (George Crumb uses three-note clusters like this in his trio Vox Balaenae.)

Muting with the fingertips

The weighted cloth-covered mutes described earlier are a better choice if you’d like a range of strings muted and for them to remain muted for a whole passage. However, if you’d like just a few different notes muted, and would like to alternate quickly between muted and unmuted notes on the same pitch, then muting with the fingertips might be the way to go. Touch a fingertip to the string close to the end of the string and depress the corresponding key to produce a rounder and darker sound than without the mute.

Though touching the strings with your clean hands should do no harm, it is possible to tarnish the outside of the bass strings with prolonged handling (a cosmetic effect, not an aural one). But, if you’re worried, don one member of your $1.49 pair of gloves and use your gloved fingers for muting. Either way, it’s an easy technique to learn.

Composer and pianist Henry Cowell explored a lot of on-the-strings techniques in his music, especially in the first third of the 20th century. Some of Cowell’s techniques I’d classify as advanced, but a few are easy and now widely used—and are probably familiar sounds to many of us, including glissando across a range of strings, various kinds of pizzicato on the strings, and the Aeolian harp or autoharp technique.

Glissando (on the strings)

Depress the damper pedal and run a fingertip or fingernail across a range of strings, perpendicular to the strings. Experiment with the differences in sound depending on register and range for the glissando, plectrum (flesh of fingertip, multiple fingertips, fingernail(s), guitar pick of various thicknesses), and contact point on strings (a gliss at the middle of the string sounds different from one played very close to the end of the strings).

Autoharp (or Aeolian harp) technique

Cowell introduced a specialized on-the-strings glissando in his piece Aeolian Harp: finger silently a chord with one hand, then perform a glissando across all of the strings in that register with the other. Doing this will cause the strings of the chord notes to ring freely, and will add a bit of noise from the strings of the other notes in the register (which will not ring freely, since their dampers remain at rest on them). Judicious use of the damper pedal to mask the transitions will allow the player to connect one chord to another smoothly. Since actual Aeolian harps are played by the breeze, whereas an autoharp has the player choose/finger the chord with one hand and strum across a set of strings with the other, this technique is closer to autoharp playing, and I (and several other composers) use this label for it.

Pizzicato

Plucking the piano’s strings is very easy to do! Depress the damper pedal or hold down keys to raise the dampers off of the strings you want to pluck, and pluck with your fingernail or the flesh of your fingertip. Experiment with plucking near the middle of the string for a full, round sound, or near the end of the string sul ponticello for a brighter, less-focused-on-the-fundamental sound. You can get a very harp-like sound by plucking in the middle register with the flesh of your fingertip, plucking close to the middle of the string. (Just think, harp sounds without waiting 15 minutes for your harpist friend to tune their instrument. Harpist-friends: I’m only joking…I meant 20 minutes.) Try muting and plucking together! Then, muted, plucked and sul ponticello placement!

Cowell, when he started his inside-the-piano playing, referred to his new approach to the instrument as if it were a new instrument, saying that his pieces were for the “string piano.”

If you’ve stuck with me this far, I think you can hear the big, big sound world that can open up to you if you start reaching into the piano and exploring some of its resources that aren’t available just at the keys.

Even though there are many more techniques for the piano to explore, next week I’m going to move from the piano to the toy piano and delve into some preparations, inside-the-piano techniques, and even some instrument alterations for this unique instrument.

Beyond the 88: More no-fear piano preparations

Golf tee inside the piano

In the last post I talked about some easy surface preparations for piano, but I didn’t mention that there’s a long history of these. Some early piano makers experimented with creating “stops” for their instrument that would change the timbre of the piano. Many of these were essentially mechanisms for surface preparations. The bassoon stop, for instance, lowered a parchment roll (or a parchment roll covered in silk) onto the strings, producing a gentle buzzy sound against the strings when notes were sounded by the keys, much like the surface preparation of placing paper on the strings of the piano. (No I don’t know why folks in the 18th century thought this sound = bassoon.)

Even some modern upright pianos, rather than tying a sostenuto mechanism to the middle pedal, instead install a “practice mute.” On these instruments, pressing the middle pedal lowers a curtain of wool felt between the hammers and the strings, reducing the volume of the instrument.

With a few exceptions, there aren’t a lot of current piano makers who are offering stops on their instruments such as the bassoon stop, so it is up to individual players and composers to dream up their own surface preparations and discover other timbral resources for the instrument.

Here is one more easy and safe surface preparation, which I’ve saved for last because it requires some work. This is for a weighted, cloth-covered mute. This mute has several things to recommend it: since you build it yourself, you can customize each mute to the length you need, and it will cover the number of strings you’d like; it’s cheap and easy to make; it goes on and off easily, and it is safe to use on the piano strings in any register. It’s easily my favorite mute, as it’s totally consistent: place one of these mutes on a set of strings, and it dampens the sound of every string.

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I first heard about this mute from composer Stephen Hartke, who made some of these mutes with children’s socks and ordinary filling materials and used them in his piece Meanwhile (2007) written for Eighth Blackbird. Jennifer Jolley also heard about Hartke’s mutes and has blogged about making these herself. (Note these make an excellent composer task-avoidance project! Jolley remarks that adding googly eyes is optional.)

Here’s the basic idea: fill a sock with BBs or dry rice or other weighting material. Sew the end of the sock closed. Wrap the sock in another sock and sew it closed as well. And then probably enclose all of that in one more sock and seal. Finis.

Rather than using socks, which I had trouble filling all the way to the top and, since I was sewing each layer separately, I ended up with an end of the mute that didn’t mute so well, I’ve made a very slight modification. I start with two layers of t-shirt fabric, shape this into a single thick cylinder about two inches across, and double-stitch the end of the layers together. I fill that cylinder with BBs (leaving a tiny space at the top, so the mute will bend and curve easily), then double-stitch it closed, et voila, my own custom mute. Without a specific piece in mind for these, I simply made a variety of lengths, so I have one for just about any piece.

STRING PREPARATIONS

Now for a few simple and safe string preparations. The surface preparations—resting light objects on top of the strings like the paper, aluminum, and cloth items that I’ve talked about thus far—are the safest (and probably the least “scary” to new experimenters). String preparations, which involve inserting foreign objects between the strings, may be a little more intimidating, and there is indeed more opportunity to do damage with these. But, by approaching with care, there are lots of string preparations that you can try without causing any harm at all to the instrument. And, these can open up many additional sounds from the piano.

First, the protocol: Again, start with clean, dry hands. Next, you have to protect the delicate felt of the dampers, so before inserting or removing anything that you’ve previously placed between strings, always first press and hold the damper pedal down, lifting the dampers off of the strings. This prevents your lateral movement of the strings from scraping or compressing the damper felt.

Don’t try to insert anything close to the dampers, or within a couple of inches of the ends of the strings. Richard Bunger in The Well-Prepared Piano warns never to insert anything that doesn’t flex within an inch of either end of the string, and this is very good advice. Let’s play it super safe and, for now, don’t insert any string preparations at all within two inches of either end of the string.

One thing this means is basically no string preparations for the very highest register where the strings are very short and stiff. Also, it’s safest when you’re getting started trying these to avoid the more delicate wound strings of the bass register. Best to try string preparations nearer to the flabby middle of the steel strings in the middle register.

Next, in order to insert most items, in addition to releasing the dampers, you should gently move the two strings apart before placing the preparation material between those two strings. There are lots of items that pianists over the years have used for this. I recommend using a (dull) plastic children’s knife. (A bamboo wedge works very well, also, but plastic children’s knives are easy and cheap to come by.) Lots of pianists use screwdriver blades for this, but plastic is much safer to use than steel. After depressing the damper pedal, place the blade between the two strings, pivot it so that the knife edges gently push the strings apart, place the preparation in between the two strings, then pivot the knife back to release the strings onto the preparation. Then you can release the damper pedal, and check the note.

For a first string preparation, try plastic straws. You can experiment with the difference in sound between preparing with a straw between strings 1 and 2 and nothing between strings 2 and 3 of a unison set, and straws both between strings 1 and 2 and also between 2 and 3. Then try this: place a straw between strings 2 and 3 only. Play the note. Then depress the una corda pedal (left pedal) and play the same note. Cool, right? Since the una corda mechanism moves the action over so that the hammers hit fewer strings in the multiple-unison sets, now you have two different prepared piano sounds available at one key, using only the pedal and a single straw!

Next, try rubber piano tuner’s mutes. These rubber wedges are very gentle on the strings and transform the piano’s ordinary notes into a lovely muted thunk. Since these are soft and wedge shaped, you don’t need to use the children’s knife to insert these—just press and hold the damper pedal before inserting or removing, to protect the damper felt from getting squeezed by the pressure of inserting/removing the mutes.

You could also try wood golf tees. (Try the trick with the una corda pedal with these too!) Rubber cap erasers are also nice—cut a slit across the bass of the eraser and snap that over the middle string of a set of triple unisons. This will modify the sound of all three strings.

Once you’re feeling brave, you could next experiment with some harder materials as string preparations: plastic screws, plastic screw anchors, wedges of bamboo, one jaw of a wooden clothespin. These all work as string preparations, can produce some very interesting sounds, and you can use these on all the strings that are sufficiently long for preparing purposes.

And once you’ve tried all of these, and a built up a familiarity and a comfort level with them, you could try some metal items. Safest to restrict these to use with the flat steel strings, and safest to use soft metal items—small copper tubing, brass bolts and screws, aluminum machine screws. Best to avoid steel, and not to use any metal (or anything with a sharp edge) between the delicate wound bass strings.

I like Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s instructions in her piano solo scape (2011): the score indicates that eight specific mid-register notes should be prepared with screws, and says that the resultant sound should have a “’gong like’ quality,” but she leaves the size, materials (Steel or, even better, brass? Could I get away with hard plastic screws?), and the size and type of screw completely up to the pianist.

Now, obviously, John Cage’s prepared piano works don’t limit themselves to what I’m calling soft metal items. And, I will freely acknowledge that there are some wonderful sounds available by inserting steel bolts of various lengths and diameters, and bolts with additional nuts, or with nuts and loose metal washers kept in place by the nuts to add a rattle to the sound. But, I would not recommend that these be used for the wound bass strings, and great care should be used when inserting steel items even on the steel strings. Save experiments with hard metal items for once you’re thoroughly comfortable with the other string preparations I’ve covered, and consult with a professional before trying these at home!

Beyond the 88: A No-Fear Beginner’s Guide to Preparing the Piano

inside of a piano

In my university music department, I run a weekly composition colloquium, bringing in guest composers and new music performers, as well as faculty speakers, with the latter often coming to talk about things like idiomatic writing and extended techniques for a particular instrument, or setting up a composer website, or digital publishing. A couple of years ago, some of my composition students asked me if I could spend one of those meetings on extended techniques for piano. I dug through my scores, found some of my own and some Crumb, Cage, and Cowell, (among other things), and began jotting down ideas. I did a little organizing and saw that it might make sense to talk about techniques on the keys, inside-the-piano ones, plus a few simple preparations. I thought, “There has to be a book out there that already does this,” but a couple days of searching didn’t turn up very much. The campus library had a copy of Richard Bunger’s The Well-Prepared Piano, and I found several dissertations that dealt with one facet or another of the topic: one on body health and piano extended techniques, another on a pedagogical plan for introducing young students to extended techniques, even a giant historical treatment of extended techniques for piano, and then several studies of particular parts of the repertoire (especially on the works of the “Three C’s” mentioned above).

But, I didn’t really find what I was looking for. And I thought this book was needed.

So, now I’ve written that book (The Contemporary Piano: A Composer and Pianist’s Guide to Techniques and Resources), it’s out in the world, but I still feel like there’s more to do to let pianists and composers know a little more about the sonic resources available within the instrument, and to encourage safe experimentation with the piano. Recently clarinetist Heather Roche conducted a study to determine a body of multiphonics that were easy for clarinetists across models of instrument and across levels of performance experience—some universally easy multiphonics. I’m thinking of these articles as something like this for the piano—some basic, easy preparations and inside-the-piano techniques for every pianist to try.

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I think lots of pianists and composers are a bit intimidated by the idea of reaching inside the piano, or of inserting foreign objects into the instrument. I totally get that, and I have experienced this trepidation myself. Pianists are often insulated from their instrument in ways foreign to most players of other instruments—clarinetists clean and adjust their instruments regularly (even assembling and disassembling them each day). Oboists fashion an essential part of theirs (and many oboists carry their toolkits around with them). Cellists change their own strings. Percussionists regularly replace instrument parts or fashion new mallets or parts themselves. Practically everyone tunes their own axes. But, not pianists. So, to a lot of pianists, suggesting that they tune, adjust, and repair their instrument (much less reach in to play inside it or prepare it with other crazy implements) may feel a little like you’re asking them to repair their own Tesla or dabble in a little light surgery on themselves rather than visit a trained mechanic or board certified surgeon.

Now, if you’ve already toured Annea Lockwood’s Ear Walking Woman or Frankensteined your Baldwin at home with nuts, bolts, and barbed wire, there may not be much here for you. But, if you’ve always been afraid of reaching into your piano, I hope something here will give you the confidence to try out some new resources. I’ve geared these toward application on grand pianos of any size, but many of these can be adapted to work on upright pianos as well.

Some quick guidelines before getting started: before reaching into a piano, always carefully wash and dry your hands to remove excess oils.   If you’ll be experimenting with a piano that’s not your own, you probably want to get permission from the owner and/or the piano technician who maintains the instrument first. (I’m happy to write you an endorsement for any of the experiments listed below, if that will help.)

Surface Preparations

Surface preparations (which involve preparing the piano by resting a foreign object or objects on top of the strings) are the least invasive preparations to try, so let’s start with those.

After cleaning your hands, a second caution: don’t use hard materials for your preparations. Cloth, paper, cardboard, rubber, plastic, wood, and thin bits of bamboo—these are the safest materials. For string preparations, the steel strings of the middle and high register are the least delicate, and the wound bass strings are the most delicate. It’s safest, if you’re unsure, to avoid using metals entirely, but there are softer metals that are mostly safe to use as surface or string preparations: many aluminum, copper, and brass materials should be fine to use on the middle and upper register strings and, with care, can mostly be used on the bass strings, too. (But, again, feel free to start with baby steps and save all metal preparations for much later.)

So, let’s get started! First, rest an ordinary piece of letter-sized paper on top of some middle register strings, away from the dampers. Then play the keys for that register.

It’s a great sound, and the preparation is both safe and easy to apply or remove—even in the middle of a piece.

You can also experiment with different weights of paper, which will change the duration and quality of the buzziness of the paper on the strings (try poster board, a small piece of cardboard, thick cardstock, tissue paper, or Japanese rice paper). You can also try paper on strings in different registers, though it’s generally most effective in the middle register where we began.

Next, take a piece of aluminum foil, maybe about half the size of the sheet of paper, and place it in the same way on the string tops in the middle register. Aluminum foil buzzes similarly to paper, but it definitely has a different sound.

For related but slightly different sounds, it’s also easy to fashion a string preparation from strips of paper or aluminum foil. Cut a foot-long (or more) strip of either material .5 to 1 inch across and thread this under one set of three unisons, over the next set, and under the next, and so forth. A pencil or a plastic children’s table knife can be used to get under the strip and push it up between unison sets, without actually touching any of the strings or putting any pressure on them at all. The strips each produce a tighter buzz than resting the sheets of aluminum or paper on the strings.

One surface preparation that I love and that George Crumb uses in a few works is placing a thin glass rod on top of the strings. This produces a metallic, jangly harpsichord-ish sound, and it also goes on and off the strings easily and is safe to use on strings in all registers of the piano. Registral placement of the glass will be limited a bit by the interruptive braces of the particular model piano you’re using.

Several composers have explored coaxing other sounds by applying glass objects to the strings. Some ask the pianist to use the base of a glass tumbler or a bottle as a slide on the strings—a sort of slide guitar technique. Sofia Gubaidulina’s Der Seiltänzer (1997) for violin and piano exploits the glass tumbler-as-slide, for instance. C. Curtis-Smith’s Rhapsodies (1972) has the pianist invert a small wine bottle, placing the neck between two sets of unisons, and then pressing and sliding. Ashley Fure’s sextet Soma (2012) has the pianist spin a 4”x4” glass tile on the strings to sound “thin wisps of high partials that blossom sporadically into rich clusters.”

Pretty much any time I enter a non-musical realm seeking something for the cause, I suddenly gain an advocate who enthusiastically tries to help.

As a grad student preparing to play Crumb’s trio Vox Balaenae, I had no idea where to find an appropriate glass rod. I asked the composer when my student trio had a coaching session with him. He suggested the chemistry department would have them. I approached someone in chemistry about glass rods, and they kindly gave me a couple of lengths. In the Google age, this has gotten exponentially easier. A quick search of online sellers shows me that 1/4” glass stirrers in one-foot lengths are easily ordered. I just picked up six one-foot rods for $7 including shipping. Longer rods prove more expensive and may ship more slowly, but are available from scientific supply places. Or find a chemistry lab, explain to someone there that you want to play a piano with glass on the strings, and see if they’ll help you out with a couple of lengths of glass!

This brings me to my experience asking for help with my experiments with pianos and toy pianos. Pretty much any time I enter a non-musical realm seeking something for the cause, and sheepishly explain what I need it for, I suddenly gain an advocate who enthusiastically tries to help. Go to the industrial supply place seeking music wire to reboot your toy piano in an alternate tuning? Suddenly there’s a clerk in steel-toe boots combing shelves for back stock and other diameters. Go to the sex shop seeking variable speed personal vibrating devices to play piano strings with? Get a careful tour of a whole case of possibilities, and next the manager is quickly unsealing boxes and loading in batteries for you to hear the range of speeds. It’s amazing how supportive people can be.

So, grab some paper, aluminum foil, glass, and cardstock, and go try some of these surface preparations!

The Collaborative Studio: Suggestions for Your Next Recording Project

So far throughout this series on the recording studio and the collaboration within, I have provided a primer on what producers are and what they do, my process of producing non-classical music, how classical music production differs from non-classical, and ways in which classical music production could evolve with contemporary composition trends. For this last post, I’d like to offer up five suggestions for those who may be new to the studio experience—either as a producer or performer—or for those who would like to take their future projects in a new, collaborative direction.

Communicate

A point that deserves to be reiterated is the importance of communication in creating a healthy and successful collaborative environment. This means talking through ideas, providing feedback, asking questions, as well as being an active listener. Communication is a two-way channel. Not only is it important for you—whether you are the producer or the artist—to communicate your thoughts, but it is equally important to listen to others involved. As the producer, this is crucial for creating a strong working relationship. I have been in sessions where the producer only gave orders and hardly listened to the artist’s ideas. It creates a bitter relationship and a hostile environment in which no creative process could ever be fruitful.

From the producer’s perspective, listening to the artists you are working with will give you a better understanding of what it is they are trying to achieve. If you are working with musicians who are not as familiar with studio processes, their ideas may not work out the way they are imagining. However, listen to their ideas to help them achieve the end goal they are envisioning. For performers, it is important to go into a project understanding that the producer is there to help you achieve the best outcome possible. Listening to your producer and offering feedback only strengthens the project and deepens your understanding of what is possible in the studio.

Trust your team (i.e. don’t take your engineer for granted)

Part of the communication process I listed is to ask questions. What I mean by this is that, specifically as a producer, you should not feel like you need to have all of the answers. In a studio session, you are collaborating with a team of professionals. Whether it be performers, songwriters, or engineers, each person has a wealth of knowledge to contribute that you may or may not have. Take advantage of these resources and ask questions. Every composer knows how important it is to consult with performers about the extensions and limitations of their abilities on an instrument. This is the same for producers; ask questions and learn about fields you may be unfamiliar with. If a performer needs to adjust their tone to better sit in the mix, defer to their expertise on the instrument and ask what options there may be.

On more than one occasion, my engineer has provided invaluable insight that changed the course of the session and created a better end result. There have been times in which I was so focused on the musical material of a song that I wasn’t thinking about the sonic impact of each section. Suggestions about which areas of the sonic spectrum were lacking have pushed me to change the way I approach a section—sometimes by writing new parts to complement existing parts, other times by omitting parts I thought were necessary but realized were just a distraction. All this is to say, never take engineers for granted. They are more valuable than just turning a few knobs and hitting record. Even if they’ve only been in the role of engineer, they’ve been in the room with countless other producers and performers. They may just have a few tricks up their sleeves.

Have a plan (but don’t get too tied to it)

When preparing to produce a project, I always begin well before the first day in the studio. This includes doing research, studying references, studying scores, pre-production, and general conversations with the performers about what it is they are wanting to do stylistically. I always come to the first day of recording with a plan. This plan isn’t always extremely detailed, but it is an aid in organizing the upcoming sessions to ensure that everything gets done in a timely manner. The reason I tend not to prepare an overly detailed itinerary is because these plans almost always change once recording begins. It is valuable to be flexible and not get tied to a set way of doing things. These changes come about once a solid workflow is established and it is evident where the most time will be necessarily spent. However, having the initial plan will help you stay organized once things are set in motion and pieces of the schedule begin to move around. Performers will look to you to lead the way and get things rolling in the studio, and having a strong start sets you up for a successful and organized project. One of the roles of a producer is to maintain organization and keep the artists on track to meet their deadline. Doing your research ahead of time and having a foundational understanding of what the artist is wanting to achieve will keep you from wasting time during the recording process.

From the artist’s side of things, one way to help prepare for your studio sessions is to have at least an initial reference for what you are wanting to achieve sonically. Your references can be a combination of sources and they don’t necessarily need to all be things that you like. Knowing what it is you don’t like is also a helpful resource for the producer and engineer. Having an idea to get the conversation started is a great way to begin the pre-production process.

Push boundaries

One thing that I often see get lost in the studio is the spirit of exploration and experimentation. Of course, time and budget constraints can limit what people will be able to do, but, for those who are willing, the studio is an ideal environment for pushing boundaries. In a studio setting, you have the luxury of being able to hear an idea come to life in real time, and nothing is permanent if you don’t want it to be. As a producer for non-classical artists, I love offering up suggestions that are outside of the box. Sometimes they stick and sometimes they get shot down, but if an idea is easily executable there is no harm in trying something new and seeing what sort of creative impetus spawns from it.

In the previous post, I talked about ways in which contemporary classical production might evolve. Take some of these ideas or come up with your own and try them out. Maybe it won’t work, and that’s okay. I have no shortage of ideas that were left on the studio floor because they just didn’t work out, but there was no harm done. I take those experiences and learn from them. Sometimes I tweak the ideas until they finally do work, and other times I just move on entirely.

Trust yourself

Not only is it important to trust your team, but you must also trust yourself. If you’ve established a solid foundation of communication between all parties, you shouldn’t feel apprehensive about speaking up when something doesn’t sit right with you or you have an alternative idea. In a healthy collaborative setting, respect between all parties should be strong enough to hear out and work through any ideas presented. Ideas will never come to life if they aren’t presented in the first place.

As a performer, being in a studio and surrounded by studio equipment can sometimes be intimidating. We have years of experience as musicians, and all of these experiences are different from one another’s. Studio production teams are small and every person plays an integral role. Your knowledge and strengths make you a unique expert in your field. The engineer will handle the equipment, the producer will take care of organization and management, and the performers will know their instruments better than anyone else in the room. Know your field and know your limitations; you will have a team of people there to fill in any gaps and to support you and the project till the very end.

For Even the “Most Stupid Persons”

Although the majority of my professional life is devoted to listening to new music and advocating for its greater dissemination (and when I’m not engrossed in the new music of others, I work at creating some new music of my own), I also try to devote time each week to listening to older music. This year I have gone on listening binges with music ranging from Monteverdi madrigals and Muzio Clementi keyboard sonatas to chamber music by York Bowen and Dora Pejačević. And, believe it or not, despite my periodic outbursts about how overplayed his music is, I’ve devoted a substantial portion of my listening time this year to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven. I began the year listening to all 32 piano sonatas in order, then the 10 violin and 5 cello sonatas, and most recently the 9 symphonies and 16 string quartets (plus the Große Fuge). It turns out that all that Beethoven listening was fortuitous since, believe it or not, I’ve actually been invited to talk about his music and the music of Shostakovich in Cleveland next month.

Shostakovich has been a composer I have admired since I was in high school. I still remember laughing the first time I heard the William Tell Overture erupt in the opening movement of his very last symphony (which seemed a sonic assault straight out of Charles Ives). And a tune worm I have never gotten completely out of my head is the calm, constantly repeating melody that keeps shifting instrumentation at the very end of his otherwise confrontational Symphony No. 13 ‘Babi Yar,’ a setting of texts critical of Soviet social policies that was pretty much banned throughout the Eastern Bloc for nearly a decade. But I must confess that Beethoven had always been something of a bête noir for me. Most of his themes seemed insipid, little more than arpeggiated triads and scales. And mind you, I have loved In C, Einstein on the Beach, and pretty much all of minimalism since the first hearing! I think the difference with the minimalists, however, is that by the time this music evolved, tonality had evolved past its triadic fixation and seventh chords had become integrally woven into harmony. That was certainly true for most of the pop music playing around me growing up in the early 1970s, over two hundred years after Beethoven was born. Every song I heard seemed saturated with seventh chords, particularly major seventh chords (e.g. Paul McCartney’s “My Love,” “Day By Day” from the cast album of the Broadway musical Godspell, “My Cherie Amour,” “You Are The Sunshine of My Life” or just about anything else ever done by Stevie Wonder, etc.). In fact, the first piece of Beethoven’s that I felt any affinity toward was the Symphony No. 3 ‘Eroica’ which, as it turned out, has an inverted major seventh chord blare seven times at the climax of the development of the first movement. It must have completely unnerved listeners back in 1804, but when I first heard it, I just wished he would have kept repeating it even longer!

Beethoven's Major Seventh

Franz Liszt transcribed Beethoven’s entire ‘Eroica’ for solo piano, so grab a keyboard and bang out the amazing first inversion major seventh chord that repeats seven times at the end of this phrase. For my aesthetic sensibilities, it is a complete composition on its own.

Anyway, over the years I came to love many of Beethoven’s pieces—the Symphony No. 6 ‘Pastorale,’ the Piano Concerto No. 4, the Quintet for Piano and Winds, and that Große Fuge. Still, whenever I took the time to think about the melodic content in just about all of his pieces, it was still all reducible to triads and scales. It seemed too easy and lacking in suspense. Most of the melodies that have stayed lodged in my brain over the years, whether those composed by others or those I have fashioned myself, are filled with surprise leaps. I remember reading years ago that the famous theme of the Ninth Symphony, which is all just ascending and descending scale fragments except for its third phrase, originally contained nothing but scalar movement throughout and Beethoven labored for years over the final version. And I thought at the time: Would that he had labored as intensely on his other melodies.

I’ve mostly gotten over my lack of appreciation for the way Beethoven constructed his melodies, which is ironically due to my John Cage-inspired goal to be open and welcoming of all possible musical constructions. But last week I came across a quote in an 1896 book about the Beethoven symphonies by George Grove (the original editor of the famous Dictionary of Music and Musicians) that made me think of Beethoven’s themes in a totally new way:

In many of the Sonatas and Symphonies […] the chief subject consists […] of little more than the notes of the common chord of the tonic repeated; ‘so that’ in the words of an eminent musician of the present day [Dr. Hubert Parry], ‘the principle key shall be so strongly established that even the most stupid persons shall be able to realize it.’

—George Grove, Beethoven and his Nine Symphonies (Novello, Ewer & Co. 1896), p. 6.
[Note: That eminent musician to whom Grove refers above is the composer Dr. Hubert Parry (1848-1918), whose comments, according to a footnote in Grove’s text, were first published in the Proceedings of Musical Association XV, p. 23. Thus far I’ve been unsuccessful at tracking down that volume, so any leads would be appreciated.]

Admittedly, the tone of these words might come across as somewhat pejorative to a 21st-century reader. (Who are those “most stupid persons” anyway?) But if you can get past the verbiage, I think there’s a real insight about composition here, one that is still relevant to composers in our own time. If in fact the goal of these melodies–rather than their being the goal in and of themselves–is to get us to hear all the at-the-time revolutionary things that Beethoven was doing with modulations, orchestration, etc., then they are a means to a far more significant end, at least for him as a composer. Had the earliest experiments in serialism or indeterminacy been as easy to unpack, as it were, perhaps there might be wider appreciation for this music among a much broader range of listeners. One of the only pieces of twelve-tone music I know which clearly states the row at the very onset is Roger Sessions’s Eighth Symphony, although how it develops from there is hardly discernible at first listening. Then again, many of Julian Carrillo’s microtonal compositions go out of their way to introduce listeners to the ultrachromatic scales they employ—many passages are nothing more than descending scales. And yet, Carrillo’s music never caught on the way Beethoven’s has. Of course, some of Beethoven’s music took a long time to catch on, but ultimately it did.

For my entire life I have tried to reconcile my devotion to experimentation with a desire to create things that people could instantly appreciate and love. It is a never-ending balancing act. At this late date, Beethoven might actually be a more valuable role model than I had ever realized before.

New England’s Prospect: Arlene Sierra at Yellow Barn

Sierra Wall Program

Yellow Barn, July 16, 2013: Wall program by Rose Hashimoto, Qing Jiang, and Ahrim Kim.

Ah, terminology. Arlene Sierra is not considered an experimental composer, and that says more about how we’ve constrained that term and less about her attitude toward composing. I don’t mind the categorization of the kind of composers that, for the past fifty years or so, have been called “experimental”—Tenney, or Feldman, or Meredith Monk, or John Luther Adams. There’s some benefit to recognizing that some composers are farther to the left of the process-to-text continuum than others. But the name, I have always thought, is annoyingly arbitrary, and a little exclusionary. Because all composers experiment. Outsider composers experiment. Academic composers experiment. Film, Broadway, jazz, techno, ambient, blues, commercial, gospel, and telephone-hold-music composers—they will all try new things just for the sake of seeing what it sounds like. Composition is experimentation.
Which made Yellow Barn an ideal place to hear Sierra’s music. The organization—which supports residencies, a summer concert series, and a summer school, all centered around the refined-groovy I-91 way-station of Putney, Vermont—has an easygoing way of programming all manner of cutting edges, from safety scissors to samurai sword, with a sense of hospitality rather than crusade. Sierra was this year’s composer-in-residence, joining a roster that has extended all the way from John Cage to Mario Davidovsky. The Big Barn—where a portrait concert of Sierra’s music was presented on July 16—is a big tent.
Sierra’s style is definitely more modernist than maverick—to use two more terms that, while burdened with troubles of their own, are at least amorphously meaningful—but her accent is a little more subtle and elusive. The music is dense, dissonant, precipitously fluid, but there’s a groundedness to the extravagance, pitch and even tonal centers anchoring the busy crosstalk. American-born but now resident in the U.K., Sierra can easily be heard as mediating between the punctuated equilibrium of the American canon and the smoother assimilations of its European counterpart. In conversation with Yellow Barn Artistic Director Seth Knopp—such chats, interspersed between performances, functioned as the evening’s program notes—Sierra noted the contrast between the American schools of composition, marked by aesthetic sharp turns and reboots, and the European penchant for promoting new styles as continuances of long tradition. Within the tradition, Sierra might be plausibly categorized as a New Romantic, at least in a late-’70s and early-’80s way: modernist sounds wrapped around a core of heightened expression. (It was one of Sierra’s teachers, after all, Jacob Druckman, who exemplified that original “New Romantic” style.)

And it’s in her experimental penchant that such a Romantic sense really comes to the fore. What Sierra loves to experiment with is formal concepts. All of the pieces on this portrait concert took their cue from external frameworks, and the frameworks—nature and the visual arts—would have been familiar sources to the Romantics of yore. Two Etudes After Mantegna, a pair of cello solos written back in 1998 but only now getting a U.S. performance, was a kitchen sink of postmodern virtuosity: “Visage” (played by Madeline Fayette) whipped a lot of dramatic bowing and high-on-the-fingerboard passagework through a moody, minor-tinged chromaticism moored by open-string left-hand pizzicato, C, G, and D rumbling around an old-fashioned circle of fifths; “Painter’s Process” (played by Sang Yhee) was literally noisier—heavy bow pressure, col legno, deliberate rasp. The first is a classic gambit, inspiration via artwork (in this case, Madonna and Sleeping Child by Andrea Mantegna); the second tries to image its creation, starting with a scraped white-noise white canvas, sketching in outlines, brushing in underlayers. You can hear how Sierra’s experiments are a layer removed from the more commonly called “experimental” tradition—she is not so much concerned with inventing a process whole-cloth as finding a musical analogue to a non-musical process. But you can also hear the push into something unexpected.

Art of Lightness (from 2006, another U.S. premiere), for solo flute, went to a visual source unknown to the Romantics—the kung-fu movie, specifically, the gravity-defying wire-fu qinggong kind—and if the framework merely added a little extra theatrical fierceness to a standard new music set-up (switching between a collection of  contrasting channels—high and low, speedy and sustained, straight and extended techniques—with ever-increasing speed), the piece itself did achieve the acceleratingly absurd dexterity of a good wuxia showdown. (Much of the credit must go to flutist Sooyun Kim’s terrific rendition.) The one homage on the program displayed both Sierra’s comfort zone and her willingness to warp it with novel games and stratagems. Le Chai au Quai was composed for an Elliott Carter centenary concert in England, and plays off of both the instrumentation of Au Quai, Carter’s own tribute to Oliver Knussen (another Sierra mentor)—Carter’s bassoon/viola duo is dropped to bass clarinet and cello—and Carter’s style itself, Sierra applying Carter-like rhythms to pitches borrowed from part of Bach’s Musical Offering. Performed by Wai Lau and Anne Yumino Weber, Le Chai au Quai had moments redolent of its dedicatee—a ritornello with both instruments tripping down a tumbling chortle of scale made musically manifest the very idea of l’esprit de l’escalier—but also the slightly hazardous fun of turning on a machine without quite knowing what it’s going to do.

The rest of the program drew from the natural world. Both Cricket-Viol, for a singing violist (played and sung by Jinsun Kim), and a movement from Sierra’s string quartet Insects in Amber (performed by violinists Ariel Mitnick and Luri Lee, violist Sophie Heaton, and cellist Ahrim Kim) had something of the packet-switching of Art of Lightness, but working in a more measured way. The two works share material of an appropriately buzzing and flitting kind, but it was fascinating how the novelty of the added singing in Cricket-Viol was enough to disguise that its construction, too, was essentially the same as the quartet, and essentially exploratory: a recombinant schematic, creating a form not out of high contrast, but out of shifts of emphasis within a close orbit of ideas.

In this case, it was the world of nature reworking the world of music, a quality that carried over into Book I of Birds and Insects, a collection of piano pieces. The title animals “have a different sense of timing than us larger creatures,” Sierra remarked. While the pieces themselves had some familiar birdsong touches—a toccata-like “Cornish Bantam,” a fast-note grid “Titmouse,” a slow-flapping, long-limbed impressionistic “Sarus Crane,” the piano’s pedals used to keep the instrument’s extremes in ringing play—the unfolding of the music had a close-up, asymmetrical quality that seemed to privilege the natural world over the musically formal. And the departures from the expected carried the biggest expressive punch—as in “Cicada Sketch,” a stretch of quiet, smudged resonance that Sierra realized, she said, probably had as much to do with her own cross-Atlantic distance from the North American habitat of the most famous genus of that insect.

Those four pieces were played by Hui Wu with a surfeit of atmosphere. The suite’s extensive finale, “Scarab,” was performed by Michael Bukhman. It wove a far larger web, musically, interpretively, and programmatically. The beetle itself shared the inspirational spotlight with a massive sculptural representation from ancient Egypt; sections of regal scurrying, obsessive repeated notes, and dark clouds of bass evoked both the insect and its heavy history of symbolism. Formally, the piece went to a circular extreme exceeding that of Insects in Amber: it finally rounded off with a big ending, but any long-ish excerpt would have worked just as well, creating a congruence between local and global time that made it not so much a composerly statement as an object of perusal, an invitation to wander among the layers of meaning on the listener’s initiative. It might not be experimental, as the term is used now, but it was entertainingly hypothetical.

Five Lessons American Musicians Can Learn From Guildhall’s Music Leadership Program

The Messengers

The Messengers—ensemble of the Music Leadership course at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama

During my week at the Curious Festival, put on by the Guildhall School and the Barbican, I had the same conversation several times.

“I don’t know of any program like this in the States!” I kept exclaiming.
“I don’t know of anything like it, period,” people kept replying.

I had come to London to visit friends, but figuring out what exactly was happening at the Guildhall School was pretty high on my to-do list. Over the years, I’ve known several American musicians—some of whom are close friends—who’ve attended the Music Leadership course at the Guildhall School of Music & Drama. Program alumni are doing fascinating and boundary-crossing things with their musical careers. My friend Preetha Narayanan toured with Oi va Voi and ended up co-founding a piano trio that writes and performs its own original music; my friend Liza Barley embarked on a major research project on Grief And The Artist (in which I participated) and founded a duo called ontoSonics; Jill Collier Warne, a Michigan-based cellist, now shares what she learned at Guildhall in creative workshops all over the country.

Each year, the Guildhall Leadership course accepts a handful of students from all over the world. The course asks them to improvise, compose, teach, and collaborate with each other and with London artists from many other disciplines. They generate new work, embark on research projects, and actively facilitate creative music-making in London communities that wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity.

The course demands, and allows, a level of creativity, collaboration and freedom that few American music degree programs even consider. It encourages classically trained composers, instrumentalists, and electronic musicians to have a broad conception of what role they can play in their communities. It’s an experimental, challenging, almost fringe-feeling artistic community—with the backing of Guildhall and the Barbican, two of London’s biggest cultural institutions. Immersing myself a bit in the culture of the department was a rich opportunity to reflect on what’s happening in the Chicago contemporary music community. Here are the lessons that I, as an American musician, was excited to take home with me.

1. Experimental, challenging art and community music-making don’t need to dwell in separate universes.
On Tuesday night at the Curious Festival, I attended Neurath’s Boat, a presentation of new collaborative work by students from the Guildhall program and from Central St. Martin’s College of Art. The evening—whose performances drew inspiration from performance art, video media, and theater—could have easily been presented in any of Chicago’s most cutting-edge, experimental art spaces.
On Friday night, I was back in the same space, watching the same musicians perform in The Messengers. The band arranges and performs original songs written by Londoners who are formerly homeless, recovering addicts, or both.
These two wildly different performances—given in fulfillment of the same degree program—represented a refreshing juxtaposition of core values that are rarely combined. The Music Leadership course seems to be creating a space in which artists can create challenging, authentic work—while also making their musical gifts accessible to a wide variety of London communities

2. We don’t have to give someone a decade of instrument lessons before they can make music.
I was particularly overjoyed to observe rehearsals and performances by The Messengers—the ensemble in which Leadership students help perform the original songs of people recovering from homelessness and addiction. Madha, one member of the group, performed as lead singer over sweeping arrangements of his twenty-minute metal/goth-inspired suite. As he spoke-sung the brooding lyrics over the skilled accompaniment of a full rock band, piano, strings, winds, and backup vocals, the sense of joy and creative accomplishment was palpable. One extroverted participant remained in the front row throughout, beaming from ear to ear and thanking the audience rapturously after each number—including his own amazing Christian rock tune. A man who had been an introverted onstage presence was suddenly featured in a joyous rap solo; in another song, an African immigrant sang a touching original song about loneliness and homecoming.

The Messengers

The Messengers in action.

Under the deft leadership of Sigrun Saevarsdottir-Griffiths, The Messengers is a rare creative haven for individuals who are at high risk for isolation and social rejection. The ensemble equips them with the musical resources to bring their ideas to full-fledged fruition. For me, this is an exciting model, with major implications for how to embark on “adult beginner” participation in music performance.

3. There’s no limit to the way the special skills of musicians, or the special capacities of music itself, can be used.
When ontoSonics—musicians and creative partners Liza Barley and Evi Nakou—began conceiving their final project, they knew they wanted to continue the work of intimate conversations and connections that they had begun with their 2012 research project on grief and the artist. So they started a collaboration with Amie’s Group, a community support group for women victims of sexual trafficking, hailing from nations as far-flung as Ghana, Thailand, and Albania.

What do musicians creating a sound installation have to offer a group of trafficking victims as they heal and grow? As it turns out, plenty. These women, whose life stories are full of painful episodes, participated in gathering and creating audio, photography, and sculpture for the ontoSonics installation at the Curious Festival. During the audio-gathering phase, they became creative agents rather than subjects, choosing places to photograph and interviewing complete strangers about significant events that have shaped their lives. The installation room became a kind of “story-catching” space, where the women’s interviews were played on speakers and where visitors could feel free to add their own text, sound, and visual stories. For this group of women, it was an opportunity to be creative, to think outside their usual parameters, and to connect with each other and the artistic process in a new way.

ontosonic musicians working

Liza Barley and Evi Nakou (ontoSonics) working in their installation room.

ontosonics installation

The ontoSonics Life Cycles/story-catching installation

This Life Cycles story-catching project inspired me to think about what other ways we could involve and engage “uninitiated” neighbors in the creation of musical work.

4. You don’t need special permission or multiple academic degrees before you’re allowed to compose.
Most of the students in the Leadership program don’t identify as composers when they enter the program, but they’re immediately expected to begin creating their own music. For me—an American performer who wants to make creativity a part of my practice—this was a refreshing change from the strict division of labor between performers and composers. At the Neurath’s Boat performance I attended, this encouragement towards creativity yielded an amazing diversity of compositional voices. Guitarist and electronic musician Gil Teixeira collaborated with video artist May Yan Man on a sensual, immersive, sonic and visual exploration of a simple floor fan. Singer/composer Teresa Campos created an arresting and sometimes terrifying “breathscape” to accompany video (by Aya Arden-Clarke) of herself emerging and re-submerging into water; oboist Marlies van Gangelen lay on her back and batted a swinging, glowing orb back and forth with the bell of her oboe as she played. Together, the evening was a diverse and fascinating look at the compositional and creative voices that can emerge from a pool of performer-identified artists.

5. It is absolutely possible to create an environment where women thrive as electronic composers, musical visionaries, and creative leaders.

The Neurath’s Boat performance, and the Leadership program itself, was comprised of a majority of women artists—something Chicagoans can’t say about our edgiest centers for electronic and improvised work. Clearly, a fantastic creative environment has been created for women artists on the Leadership course. How has this dynamic been achieved? It’s a kind of chicken-or-egg situation, where women’s participation begets more participation—and, of course, exclusion begets exclusion. Perhaps Guildhall’s success in fostering female creativity has something to do with what I named in Item 4. If we stopped strictly defining the criteria for what a “real composer” is, and simply compelled all musicians to create, would more women start doing “real composing”?

An Introduction to Experimentation

On Sunday, the first meeting of the Society of Experimental Musicians (affectionately abbreviated S.Ex.M.) convened in a warehouse art space in Los Angeles’ Atwater Village. Organized by composer-performer James Klopfleisch, part of S.Ex.M.’s stated mission is to bring together musicians and non-musicians with a common interest in “the exploration and realization of radical music, music on the fringe, and anything and everything that falls under the extremely vague category of ‘not in any concrete category’.”

What distinguished this event from many others of its kind was its informality and distinct lack of stuffiness, despite some of the academic trappings on display. Each meeting promises to feature different artists talking about and presenting their work, and Klopfleisch chose to present his own work for this first occasion. He did so in a jocular and easygoing way, closer to the delivery of a storyteller than a professor. Two pieces were presented: The Virgin Joke (in which your self-conscious narrator performed) and Landscape #4 (an electronic piece that played continuously in the background of Klopfleisch’s talk, sometimes to disruptive effect).

The Virgin Joke was written in an airport during a 12-hour layover, Klopfleisch explained, when he had little else to entertain himself with other than a script from an old episode of Roseanne. The piece is built around a single bit of dialogue from that episode, with an undetermined number of musicians in a pseudo-accompanimental role behind the three speaking parts. In some ways the piece engages very strongly with experimental traditions, employing a simple graphic notation in which high sustained tones and short percussive sounds are specified, but exact pitches and timings are free. In other ways the piece is explicitly conventional, particularly in its replication of the typical setup-punchline joke format. There’s even a musical punchline of sorts when the entire ensemble is asked to play something like an ascending scale in unison. (I chose to perform this part on the flexatone, because comedy! The other performers were Todd Lerew, Marcus Rubio, Colin Wambsgans, Christine Tavolacci, Andrew Young, Sepand Shahab, Nicholas Deyoe, and Mike Winter.)

The event concluded with a panel discussion about some of the issues raised with Anne LeBaron, Nicholas Deyoe, Casey Anderson, and Dorothy Fortenberry. As the sole non-musician on the panel, Fortenberry (a playwright and television writer) had a difficult and crucial role to fulfill, almost as a kind of audience proxy. She admitted to being frustrated by the way Landscape #4 was deployed, making it impossible to devote your full attention either to it, or to the talking that it would frequently interrupt.
While the audience of 30 or so people consisted mostly of other musicians, this was certainly not universally the case, and as discussion shifted away from the panel into the audience, the perspectives of non-musicians took on even greater importance. What I found heartening was that audience members were not afraid to express their lack of understanding of something, and they were not belittled or dismissed for doing so. There was no assumption of blame on the part of the musicians or the audience, simply an exploration, a search for reasons behind the disconnect. The feeling of openness that this engendered, and the distinct lack of judgmentalism all around, is something I’d like to see more of. When I think of what I want the experimental music scene to look like in the future, this would be an excellent model.

Marcos Balter: Hyperactive Unity


There is an arresting, high-voltage energy that often infuses presentations of Marcos Balter’s music, and an obvious fascination on the part of the composer with exploring new sonic possibilities while keeping the human element—the living, breathing performer—center stage. While the roots of these influences are clearly reflected in Balter’s own personality, putting too much emphasis on his Brazilian upbringing and the Portuguese accent that lightly colors his rapid English would be a mistake.

“I’m a Brazilian composer, I’m a gay composer, and people always go for those things as if they are the really crucial, defining elements in my music, when they’re really not,” Balter explains with a mix of understanding and frustration. A composer born and raised in Rio de Janeiro who currently calls Chicago home, he appreciates the American interest in how where you come from shapes the music you write. In his case, however, growing up in a diverse metropolitan city offered him a broad slate of experiences, and the hallmarks of his own music are much more personal.

“As you can probably tell, I’m a very hyperactive person,” Balter concedes with a knowing smile. “I’ve always been very energetic and doing one million things at once, very fast paced in general in life. And when I look at my music, I see that. I see that sense of—unity. It’s that one thing sometimes, but if you look very carefully, it’s one billion things within that one thing.”

As a young conservatory student, his musical passions “were very well behaved,” he admits, with a special affinity for the keyboard composers he was studying as a pianist. Composition was also already a “very natural act to me,” coming almost hand in hand with learning to read and write. In 1996, a piano scholarship to Texas Christian University brought him to the States, though his educational focus was ultimately on composition. Study at Northwestern University followed, and he is currently the director of the music composition program at Columbia College Chicago.

During his first years in the U.S., he found that his music became a little more conservative before he rebelled—a reaction, perhaps, to the education he was receiving, which he found stiflingly dogmatic. “I think that sometimes the least interesting thing about my music is how it’s made,” he clarifies. “If you want to know about that, that’s great, and you can do all kinds of crazy analysis and find out some fun stuff. But to me the most important part of music is still the emotional connection between the composer and the performer, and the performer and the listener. The rest is secondary.”

Considering how closely Balter likes to work with the musicians who play his pieces, that primary consideration carries particular weight. “I really see the act of composing as a collaborative act. Even when you’re composing by yourself, not talking to anyone, you’re still working with that entity, you’re still working for those people.”

In Balter’s case, however, that person often is in the room at certain points in the process, offering feedback and demonstrating possible sounds and techniques. In the case of his extensive work with the musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble over many years, he’s writing not only for respected colleagues, but also very good and trusted friends.

“That’s why I love working with them. I know that when I walk into a rehearsal, that the rehearsal is still a workshop. We’re still debating ideas; we’re still negotiating things.” And that, he argues, is an essential step in the artistic process that he’d be foolish to overlook. “Things change considerably when they leave the paper and they reach the performer, and for me to not acknowledge that and make that part of the creation of the art work is insane.”

He also counts on that feedback to keep him pushing forward in his own art. In one extreme example, during the creation of his Descent from Parnassus—inspired by Cy Twombly’s painting The First Part of the Return from Parnassus and written for ICE founder and flutist Claire Chase—Balter sent his first sketch of the piece her way. “She called me back, and she said, ‘That’s not it.’ And I was deeply offended! I was mad at her. I’m the composer; you shall not tell me if it is or it isn’t—I’ll know!”

A step back and some reflection offered new perspective, however. “Within four or five hours, the coin dropped, and I looked at this sketch and thought, ‘She’s absolutely right. This is not in any shape or form what this painting is about.’ I called her back and I said, ‘You know what? Let me give it another shot; let me try to process things differently here.’
“Within 72 hours, I had Parnassus.


That openness to exploring new paths and changing direction on the fly is why Balter considers himself at heart an experimental composer. “I don’t know where I’m going. And I actually think that if I knew, I would have stopped composing a long time ago,” he admits. “So no, I don’t know what’s going to happen to my music next year, I don’t know what’s going to happen next week. And that’s the beauty of it; that’s the excitement of it—it’s the not knowing. If I knew everything, I could write a book about it and be done.”