Tag: extended techniques

Beyond the 88: Playing Around Inside the Toy Piano

Hand inside toy piano

In last week’s installment of “Beyond the 88” I talked about several on-the-strings techniques, after first showing how to construct a weighted, cloth-covered mute. Here in my last beginner’s guide, I’d like to move from the piano to its playful, diminutive cousin: the toy piano.

The Toy Piano: Some Preparations and Nontraditional Techniques

Yes, I realize that the toy piano is a different beast from a modern grand piano. However, in discussions with the editorial staff for my book The Contemporary Piano I was adamant that I needed to include a chapter on the toy piano. So many pianists are including the toy piano as part of their regular gigging equipment, and, truly, the instrument is coming into its own right now. Just look at the work of Margaret Leng Tan, Phyllis Chen, David Smooke, Isabel Ettenauer, Karlheinz Essl, Amy O’Dell, Elizabeth A. Baker, Xenia Pestova, HOCKET piano duo, and many, many others who are currently showcasing the toy piano in live performances and/or composing new works for it. Beyond this widespread toy piano boom that’s happening, I’m personally very fond of it, and want to do my best to encourage more composing/performing and experimenting with this instrument!

And, here’s a great argument for experimenting with preparations on the toy piano—toy pianos are a lot cheaper than concert grands, and a lot easier to repair or replace if you damage one. I bought a lovely 37-key Schoenhut “Day-Care Durable” upright at my local flea market for $25—and it came with the original mini-bench. Tell enough of your friends that you love toy pianos, and they will start finding their way to you. One of my colleagues picked one up for me at a garage sale a few weeks ago, and just brought it to the music department. (And, the lid of this “grand” was already mostly ripped off, so the first thing I did was remove the lid entirely. Suddenly it’s the perfect instrument for tone rod preparations.)

For many of these techniques or preparations, you’ll need access to the toy piano’s tone rods. Most modern toy pianos, and certainly every chromatic instrument that I’ve run across myself, uses small-diameter metal rods for their sound. Plastic (or wood) hammers are set into motion from keys, and the hammers hit these metal rods, rather than metal strings as in a piano. Different models will offer up access to the tone rods in their own ways, requiring different levels of instrument dismantling. My “travel” instrument (purchased so I would have a toy piano that I could pack in a carry-on suitcase when I was flying to the Florida International Toy Piano Festival a couple of years ago), is a Michelsonne that has a keyboard that folds flat into the cabinet of the instrument. Fold down the keyboard, and you have instant access to the tone rods and the hammers, no disassembly required. As mentioned above, my latest Schoenhut grand had a lid attached with hinges (barely) and an articulated arm that served as the “stick” for the lid. Remove the hinge screws and the ones for the arm, and the lid is out of the way, exposing almost the full sounding length of the tone rods. Other instruments may require removing a few more bits of the casing, but usually even this will mean removing only a few screws.


So, get yourself access to the tone rods.

Then try muting! Hand muting the rods is very easy. Sound notes with one hand on the keys, and press or pinch with the fingertips of your other hand on the tone rods. You can even vary the pressure of the muting fingers and change the amount of pitch and resonance remaining in the sound. For some really delicate sounds, you can also try plucking the low-register (longer) rods, or running the flats of your fingernails across the full range of tone rods.

Underpressure techniques on the toy piano are great! Play as usual on the keys, but don’t press hard enough for the hammers to strike the tone rods, or run your fingernails across the front edge or the tops of the keys, and you get the clack of your fingernail skipping across the gaps between keys, and the rattling of the plastic keys and the action.   You can also make a rattling sound on the keys by shaking a finger laterally between two of the sharps (works particularly well between E-flat and G-flat, or B-flat and D-flat, as there you have a gap of two white keys giving you a little more space to move). All of these techniques produce even more sound on a toy piano than on a piano, because the toy’s actions are more primitive and have few or no soft surfaces to deaden the sound. There’s none of the refinement of a modern piano here, so the action and the keys themselves are noisy!

There are plenty of preparations to try as well, but here are three easy ones that have a big effect on the sound:

Poster Putty

Take a small ball of poster putty, maybe about the size of a standard wooden pencil’s eraser, and press it onto the end of a tone rod. Play on the key and voilà, a muted thunk of a sound! Poster putty also lowers the pitch about a half step in addition to muting, so you can get some nice timbral contrast by alternating between an unprepared note and the very next higher note with poster putty added to it.

Mini Plastic Hair Clips

These are available from your local drug store or big box “we have everything” place, are inexpensive, and come in packs of several. Clip one of these onto a tone rod and play the key as normal. The clip takes away some of the body of the sound and narrows it to a more percussive one.

Alligator Clips

These are also easy to find, at a Radio Shack (if you can still find one of those) or from an online seller that carries electronics parts. Attach an alligator clip onto one of the tone rods and, again, play as usual. These take even more pitch and body away from the sound than the mini plastic hairclips, and the resultant sound would blend really well with a prepared piano—maybe with the strings prepared with piano tuner’s mutes? (Someone write this toy piano/prepared piano piece!)

Both the mini plastic hair clips and the alligator clips change the timbre but mostly don’t alter the pitch.

With a little work, you can also bow the tone rods. Make a bow by buying a spool of low-test monofilament fishing line. (No need for 30-lb or 50-lb test line; 12-lb or 8-lb will serve here.) Cut several strands of the line the same length (about two feet is generally comfortable to work with), and tape the bundle together at each end. You’ll also need some bow rosin. Apply bow rosin to the bundle by dragging the bundle of fishing line back and forth across the block of rosin. Then loop the bundle under one of the tone rods and, while pulling the line into contact the tone rod, also slide the line across the rod (one of your hands will get closer to you while the other moves further away, and then the reverse). You should get a delicate, sustained note from the rod. (You can even experiment with how placing the bow at different parts of the rod will bring out certain harmonics, and how bowing with the bundle arced under more than one rod can sound two notes at once.)

There are many more creative options to explore, wherever your imagination leads you from here. A few years ago, a student of mine made a robot “player” toy piano. I’ve already purchased the spare parts and bought some blank music wire stock for the tone rods in order to create a toy piano in an alternate tuning. One of my colleagues has just proposed to me a way of rebuilding a toy piano to optimize the hammer strike points, and he also has some ideas modding the instrument that may allow adjustable tuning for the tone rods. When your whole instrument cost you $25 or less, it’s easy to embark on taking the whole thing apart and to take the risk of not being able to reassemble it in anything faintly resembling its initial configuration.

So, to wrap up. It’s high time pianists got a little more comfortable with playing inside and experimenting with their instruments. Maybe you can start here at the end and get your feet wet experimenting with a toy piano, then move on to a grand piano and try some inside-the-piano techniques, some surface preparations, and some string preparations. Find a toy piano, dismantle it, and find some new sounds inside it! And, go on, pick up some plastic children’s flatware at your nearest IKEA for inserting preparations into the strings of your grand piano, and dig in!

Have fun, and find some new sounds for 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.


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.


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.


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.


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!

A Holistic Approach to Sound

Depending on who you talk to, “extended techniques” can be a loaded term. To one person, the presence of extended techniques makes a piece of music weird and unlistenable, while to another, their absence would indicate music that is regressive and uninteresting. In either case, ears are closed, and a blanket judgment is being made about the quality of the art using a term that should really only be a quantifier. So, first of all, I’d like to clear away some of the subjective baggage that has built up around extended techniques. The most objective way I can think of to define it is this: an extended technique is any action that produces a result outside the fundamental parameters of sound that an instrument was designed to make. This still leaves some ambiguity as to the designers’ intentions, especially when it comes to an instrument as old as mine, the violin. But it’s clear that on the violin, an execution that causes the string to vibrate with maximum consistency and overtone-rich resonance is the primary function of the instrument, which luthiers have worked very hard to cultivate over the centuries. On the other hand, playing very close to the bridge to create a broken, inconsistent sound that reinforces high overtones, while just as beautiful aesthetically, is one example of the great many techniques that fall outside the instrument’s intended function. This distinction is very important for students, since getting the string to resonate consistently is the most difficult thing to master, and is the foundation of most other physical movements on the instrument.

An extended technique is any action that produces a result outside the fundamental parameters of sound that an instrument was designed to make.

As useful as I’ve found this definition as a player and a teacher, it still sets up a dualism that I find troubling. For one thing, it would seem to support the idea that all sounds outside of the core practice of Western classical music represent an extension of that practice, and not a separate identity. To an extent I agree with this – it is very difficult to understand how to play Lachenmann if you haven’t studied Beethoven, as they are strongly connected along the lineage of German music – but this way of thinking excludes artists who have arrived at novel ways of creating sound along a different trajectory. Furthermore, by lumping an incredibly broad array of musical tools into the single category of extended techniques, the implication is that any given sound outside “normal” playing is a shallow, one-dimensional artifact, rather than a component of one of any number of deep reservoirs of practice that have just as much potential for nuanced human expression as the standard technique of the instrument’s original design.


IMAGE: Alexander Perrelli and Emma Van Deun

As my own practice on the violin has evolved to a point where the majority of the sounds I make on the instrument could be defined as extended techniques, I wonder if there is a better way to frame instrumental performance practice for the 21st century that, while respecting and continuing traditions, makes room for a deeper engagement with other avenues of expression. I’ve begun to think of this as a holistic approach to sound.

The idea of a holistic approach to sound started to coalesce when I was preparing to record Violin Solos, a series of improvised solo violin pieces for my debut album, Engage (New Focus Recordings, August 3, 2018). I had been working this way for a long time in various contexts, from interpreter to collaborator to improviser, but didn’t have the words for it yet. Planning and practicing for that recording session, and then working to break it all down afterward to write the liner notes for the album, gave me the impetus to look under the hood of my practice and really examine what was happening.

In thinking about my approach to sound, I kept on coming back to the idea of reservoirs. The standard, “romantic” style of violin playing that has been dominant since at least the mid-20th century and that every violin student learns is one reservoir. It utilizes the sounds that the modern violin, paired with the modern bow, were designed to produce – rich and luminous, causing the string to vibrate in a manner that is consistent and sustained. Another, equally deep reservoir encompasses the highly specific timbral study that has been so thoroughly researched by composers like Helmut Lachenmann, Mathias Spahlinger, and many others since (though on a musical level the compositions of Lachenmann and Spahlinger remain deeply connected to the same Germanic tradition that begat “romantic” string playing, on a technical level the sounds represent a radically different engagement with the instrument, requiring an entirely different skill set as a player). Another reservoir is Just Intonation, a practice that has made its way into just about everything that I do. Another might broadly be described as noise-based music. Another that is specific to my individual path would be the sounds and techniques that grew out of collaborative work with my composer colleagues in the Wet Ink Ensemble (Alex Mincek, Kate Soper, Eric Wubbels, and Sam Pluta). Far from a comprehensive list, those are just a few examples of reservoirs that have spoken strongly to me and that I have incorporated into my playing, colored by my unique experiences as a musician. Another violinist would no doubt have some similarities and some differences.

One can dive deeply into any single reservoir and find more than a complete set of tools for musical expression. I think that a piece based completely in scratch tones and pitchless noise has just as much potential to be beautiful as a piece based in fully voiced notes. It’s only a matter of whether it is done well. For me, a mode of personal expression on the violin that feels rich and fulfilling involves drawing from many of these reservoirs and then quickly cutting between them. By engaging with material in this way, the relationship to sound feels less like the ornamentation of a monolithic practice, and more like personal conversations with distinct musical entities.

A mode of personal expression on the violin that feels rich and fulfilling involves drawing from many of these reservoirs and then quickly cutting between them.

All of this reminds me of a quote from Sam Pluta’s writing about his own work, in which he proposes a type of musicmaking where “anything and everything is possible and acceptable at any moment.” It’s an attitude that embraces adventure and innovative modes of expression without demanding an outright rejection of established practices. And it represents a kind of openness to the universe that makes the music of composers like Sam and Anthony Braxton so compelling and inspiring. This isn’t to say “everything is good” – curation and self-criticism must be valued for art to be successful – but that a nondogmatic engagement with sound can yield beautiful results. Never mind whether an artist hails predominantly from one aesthetic camp or another. If there is a sound or gesture that is right for the music, do it.

The music that resonates with me tends to be aesthetically adventurous and open-minded, yet tightly curated. I’ll use a few works that were written for me by some of the Wet Ink composers as examples. Sam Pluta’s Jem Altieri with a Ring Modulator Circuit, for violin and electronics, lives mostly in a world of carefully sculpted noise, but in rare and special moments, when the music needs it, calls on the violin to produce fully resonant pitched sonorities. Kate Soper’s Cipher, for soprano and violin, winds up traversing an incredibly diverse array of musical terrain, from timbral study to art song to psycho-acoustic phenomena, all in the service of a thoroughly logical exploration of language and meaning. Eric Wubbels’s “the children of fire come looking for fire,” for violin and prepared piano, begins with an extremely long overpressure sound on the violin, setting up expectations in the listener about the style and form of the work, which are then subverted as it is revealed that the scratch tone functions as a metaphorical well of sound from which the rest of the highly articulate and virtuosic materials for the piece are drawn. In the case of each of these works, when you pull back and take in the big picture, musical choices that are unexpected or surprising in the moment work together beautifully in the larger context.

Sam Pluta: Portraits/Self-Portraits, performed by Josh Modney and the Wet Ink Large Ensemble. This work begins with a version of Jem Altieri with a Ring Modulator Circuit scored for violin and ensemble.

A successful performance of multifaceted music like this demands a fluency of movement between strongly defined sonic identities. Another way of expressing that is that the music demands versatility. The idea of versatility loomed large as the ultimate goal of my classical training, the key to unlocking a successful career as a concert violinist. I agree with that in spirit, except that the traditional conservatory approach defines versatility very narrowly as the ability to play in the styles of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, and Debussy. The idea is that if you can master the techniques required to play those composers, you can play anything. As a teacher, I still think those things are important. The study of classical music is an excellent way to gain fluency in the sounds that the instrument was designed to make, and fluency in the instrument’s primary functions are critical to artistry. But those sounds represent only a small fraction of the tools necessary to thrive as a 21st-century musician.

The music that resonates with me tends to be aesthetically adventurous and open-minded, yet tightly curated.

As a classically trained violinist, I’d like to propose that we expand our concept of versatility on the instrument. What if a new versatility included improvisation, adventurous reinterpretations of antique music, deep engagement with more recent traditions on the instrument, and collaborations with artists on new compositions, sounds, and techniques? Rather than regarding all sounds as extensions of a single dominant practice, let’s treat the established norms of Western classical music as just one of many reservoirs of musical thought in a holistic approach that values many kinds of expression.

Collaboration as Performance Practice

There’s a moment in Kate Soper’s duo for soprano and violin, Cipher, that tends to stick in people’s minds. The soprano, delivering spoken text, moves toward the violinist and places a mute on the instrument, filtering the tone color. As the violinist continues to play, the soprano moves closer still and places several fingers on the strings, activating specific pitches along the fingerboard. With intricately choreographed movements, the two musicians play the instrument together, creating harmonies that would be otherwise inaccessible to a solo violinist. Simultaneously, the violinist begins to speak. The roles of voice and instrument, which up to this point have been vying for primacy, have become equal and intertwined.

The physicality of it all is striking. It brings the violin into sharp focus. The expressive and sonic capabilities of the instrument have been tested throughout the first half of the piece, and now, in a radical extension of instrumental technique, the violin sings in an entirely new way. It’s also personal, drawing attention to the relationship between two performers and embodying the spirit of openness essential to adventurous musicmaking.

By crossing over into the visual realm, that moment illuminates an intensely personal, non-hierarchical creative process that is embedded throughout the sonic fabric of Cipher, a process that is a galvanizing force behind the extraordinary invention and experimentation in the piece. As the musicians converge on the violin, it is apparent that open dialogue must have been integral to developing the mechanics of the playing technique, and that the process must have involved a great deal of time and trust.

I’d like to take the opportunity here on NewMusicBox to talk about the genesis of Cipher and another work that is based on this kind of open process—Eric Wubbels’s “the children of fire come looking for fire”—and the profound impact both of these works have had on my relationship to creativity as a classically trained violinist. Both of these artists have turned away from the hierarchical paradigm of classical music, where the composer works in isolation on a piece before handing the final product to one or more interchangeable performers, in favor of a holistic approach that allows for creativity and learning from both sides of the composer/performer relationship.

Kate originally wrote Cipher for the two of us over an extended period of workshop in 2011. We premiered it in December of that year, and then started to perform it extensively in 2012 after a significant revision. The workshop process started at the very first stages of material generation. These early sessions drew on Kate’s sketches, initial ideas about how to share roles and subvert the traditional hierarchy of soprano with accompaniment (in part, building on ideas from Kate’s soprano and flute duo with Erin Lesser, Only The Words Themselves Mean What They Say), our burgeoning interest in Just Intonation (JI), Renaissance choral tuning exercises, and more. Our workshops were about posing questions and musical puzzles and seeing what we could do with them. For instance, is there a precise JI alternate tuning of the violin that can yield both a complex, “colored” unison across all four strings as well as pure intervals? How palpable are psycho-acoustic difference tones between soprano and violin, and how precisely can they be controlled? Can the instrument be readjusted to standard tuning in the middle of a piece without a pause in the action? (Through a team effort, yes!) Can novel sonorities on the violin be conjured if both performers play the instrument simultaneously? Historically, there is a great deal of overlap between the performance practice of violin and voice (the violin’s vocal qualities are widely celebrated, as in Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise), however the extended techniques of each diverge from one another dramatically. The long workshop process of Cipher allowed us to discover an extended soundworld with fields of sameness and difference, enabling the material in Cipher to morph into myriad extremes and then realign in uncanny unison.

Kate Soper and Josh Modney performing on a violin with four-hands

Kate Soper and Josh Modney navigating a passage for “violin four-hands” (Photo by Spencer McCormick, courtesy New Music USA)

A key element in all of this musical experimentation is trust. Trust encourages adventurous musical choices while laying groundwork for the performance practice of the final work. Every great chamber musician knows the critical importance of trust. For a great performance to happen, the musicians must inhabit a higher plane, a communal version of Robert Pirsig’s “high country of the mind,” interdependent and tethered together in Alpine-style ascent. An open creative process rooted in long-term collaboration allows that bond of trust to be forged right from the beginning, reinforcing every step of the piece’s development from premiere to revision, reinterpretation, touring, memorization, and recording.

A high level of trust opened up the potential for Kate and me to develop the technique for “violin 4-hands,” which involves a sharing of the extremely personal space of the violin’s physical surface and immediate aura. That trust eventually led to the refinement of a performance practice that is as much an integral part of the piece as the notes on the page, and ultimately, I think, bridges a gap that has been artificially opened in our musical culture. The gap between the paradigm of contemporary music composition and performance, which allows for experimentation but too often stops dead after the premiere, and of classical music, which demands refinement and deep engagement with individual works but all too easily falls into entrenched ways of thinking, at the expense of novel and creative approaches.

In classical music practice, the extremely high standards of refinement allow virtuosity to coalesce into a conduit for the expression of the spirit. I think that an important reason many listeners prefer classical music over contemporary music is that a great deal of energy has been put in over a great deal of time such that classical performers are able to transcend the technical demands of the music and communicate with audiences from the “high country.” A desire to bridge the gap and bring this level of refinement and detail to the creative space of a contemporary work is one of the things that drove the process behind Eric Wubbels’s “the children of fire come looking for fire” for violin and prepared piano.

Eric wrote “the children of fire…” for the two of us over the course of several months in early 2012. We met weekly, experimenting with sounds and, as the material began to solidify, learned the piece in chunks, building it up gradually from week to week. It was extremely rewarding to learn the piece in small sections in this super detailed and developmental way. By the time the week of the premiere arrived, each section of the piece felt innately familiar.

A recurring feature in Eric’s music is the idea of “translation”—that is, translating a sound that is idiomatic to one instrument into the language of another instrument, and then fusing the two sounds together. Blending the timbres of the modern violin and the modern piano is a particularly challenging task. Much of the famous repertoire for violin and piano duo was written for very different instruments – softer and warmer, built for intimate spaces, the characters of different keys brought to life by the piano’s meantone tuning, a system to which the violinist can easily adapt.

The situation these days is much different. The equipment of violins and pianos has been adapted for projection over an orchestra, such that it is difficult for the percussive attack of the piano and the tenacious sustain of the violin to blend. And the tuning system of equal temperament is a challenging fit for the violin. (For an informative and entertaining read on this, check out How Equal Temperament Ruined Harmony: And Why You Should Care, by Ross W. Duffin.)

All of this is to say that the timbre of the instruments (i.e., the instrumental technology) that forms the basis of a piece matters. A lot. The fresh ways that Eric has written for the peculiarities of the modern violin and the modern piano are a big part of what makes “the children of fire…” such a special and extraordinary piece. In “the children of fire…”, there are many instances where Eric uses the idea of translation to bring the instruments together. The piece begins with a sustained noise wall produced by overdriving the top string of the violin. Far from a generic scratch tone, it is a sound so complex and layered that it gives a sense of “everythingness,” a singularity from which the material for the rest of the piece is generated. This functions both metaphorically in the structure of the piece and as a practical generator of material – Eric made a spectral analysis of the sound and used that to find chords on the piano that would blend seamlessly.

Another example of translation sources a sound so idiomatic to the violin that it has become cliché: descending left hand pizzicato a la Paganini. It’s a sound associated with a certain brand of corny violinistic showmanship that Eric beautifully repurposes by combining it with a unison pizzicato gesture inside the piano (an evolution of the “pizz fail” section of Eric’s earlier work for Wet Ink, katachi).

Eric Wubbels: katachi – “pizz fail” section (as performed by Wet Ink Ensemble on Relay, Carrier Records)

There is a passage at the heart of “the children of fire…” that is effectively a double translation, reconciling the violin’s inability to play sustained chords with the piano’s inability to play in Just Intonation. It employs difference tones, which I learned how to precisely control on the violin through the process of collaboration with Eric. Difference tones are a psycho-acoustic phenomenon. When we hear two or more pitches simultaneously, our brains fill in the fundamental of those pitches. When the pitches are tuned in a manner that corresponds exactly to ratios of the harmonic series, we perceive the fundamental strongly. If you play a series of intervals formed from different strata of the harmonic series, a ghostly psycho-acoustic “bassline” emerges. In “the children of fire…”, Eric realizes this virtual bassline on the piano. It is a passage of striking beauty that solves the problem of violin/piano blend without using any extended techniques. The violin reinforces the upper partials inherent to the piano pitches, while the piano undergirds the fundamental that is psycho-acoustically implied by the violin dyads. The instruments blend perfectly, a meta-instrument, and akin to the far ranging terrain of Cipher, the possibility is opened up for the players to shape sounds that are starkly differentiated and then return to a place of absolute unity.

Eric Wubbels: the children of fire come looking for fire [excerpt] (performed by Josh Modney and Eric Wubbels on Engage, New Focus Recordings)

Making music this way, from the ground up, is incredibly rewarding and empowering, especially from the perspective of the relative confines of classical performance training. Being a participant and partner from the early stages of the development of a work, with generous collaborators who are willing to share their creative agency, has been liberating for me and has fundamentally changed my relationship to music. It has allowed me to connect the dots and see the potential for my own mobility along a continuum that ranges from interpretation, through collaboration and creative partnership, to being the primary creator myself as an improviser/composer. And, in the case of these duos by Kate and Eric, we have found a path that has no end date, and grows richer with each performance.

Aside from the great musical and spiritual rewards of such a process, it is also—perhaps counterintuitively—an incredibly efficient way to bring a new piece from the early stages of composition to the ultra-refined performance standard that is expected of classical music. Again, it has to do with an innate familiarity with each timbre and gesture (built on the process of elimination that happens when honing a sound in workshop, habitualizing your brain to the details of production, “not this, or this, but THIS”), and with the trust that is forged between collaborators which can then be brought onto the concert stage. Classical music performance, while fraught with its own challenges, benefits from pre-established practices cultivated over centuries and the framework of the common practice period. As new music performers, we must create our own performance practice before we may hope to transcend technical execution and strive toward that high country where the real, sustained ecstatic communication between performers and listeners can take place.


Exploring Timbre in Choral Music

Full Disclosure: many of the samples I share in this article are from the See-A-Dot Music Catalog, a company for which I am the director.

Unlike many aspects of the experimental music world, choral music in the western classical realm has historically avoided employing a variety of vocal timbres in any given piece, usually defaulting to the inherited English choral cathedral tradition. By contrast, string players are readily prepared to perform a variety of sounds on their instruments from sul tasto and sul ponticello to pizzicato and scratch tones. But while this kind of experimentation with sound used to be unusual in the choral world, it is now becoming more common.

In choral music, timbral varieties are generally confined to specific styles and genres.

It’s not that choral singing as a whole does not employ a variety of timbres: singers sing differently in a gospel choir than when singing in an Anglican church; musical theater and opera choruses ask for very different vocal production, and that’s just sticking to the most common styles in the United States. If we back up even further and look at ensemble singing from a global perspective, Bulgarian choirs use an entirely different timbre from singers in West Africa, Sardinia, and India. But these timbral varieties are generally confined to specific styles and genres of music. Modern recording and communication technology has brought a new level of awareness and exposure to vocal timbre to a large group of people, and there is an increasing interest in playing with the sound possibilities of the voice influenced by music of other cultures—from yodeling to Mongolian throat and overtone singing. I believe the future of choral music will embrace timbre as an integral component of sound making.

I give credit to Meredith Monk for pioneering music for vocal ensembles that focuses on the different sounds of the voice, perhaps above and beyond the individual notes and rhythms. For example, Dolmen Music has an entire section where the soprano line gradually changes from a more open, “traditional” sound to a very bright nasal technique, and that transition in timbre is the main driving force behind the drama of that section.

Like the above example by Monk, much of this choral music is wordless, putting the focus on the voice itself as an instrument, rather than the musical interpretation of the text. Here is an example from the composer Toby Twining, who is also a versatile vocal performer familiar with a variety of techniques. Twining treats the voice like an instrument and incorporates a slew of different styles and techniques into a single composition.

While the piece certainly isn’t easy, it has been performed by college and community choirs around the country. Twining has also recently written new pieces for Roomful of Teeth, an ensemble popularizing the incorporation of techniques from global singing styles into Western music. While most of the music written for them is extremely specialized and likely not performable by large choirs, avocational singers, or even most semi-pro ensembles, there is a growing body of work that incorporates a variety of timbres and techniques in such a way that is accessible to avocational and student singers.

There’s a growing body of work incorporating a variety of timbres that is accessible to avocational and student singers.

I’d find it silly to not include my own most performed piece for choir, which is an example of timbral exploration for choirs. Hymn to Aethon uses four different timbres, ranging from dark to bright sounds, and it’s the use of timbres and rhythmic groove that provide the bulk of the aural interest, not the harmonic content which mostly revolves around melodies and open fifths.

I believe what contributes to the popularity of this piece is the relatively simple harmonies (it’s only 4 parts with almost no divisi) and straightforward rhythms making it relatively easy to perform without compromising its interest. I’ve taught this piece to unauditioned college groups and professional ensembles, and in both instances, the rehearsal process relies on rote learning, vocal play, and listening rather than note learning, blend, and lyrical interpretation. I think exploring vocal timbres will play an increasingly important role in the future of choral music as a way to expand the expressive palette available to choirs without relying on the harmonic content of the work.

Robert Dick’s The Other Flute Mocked on Network TV

Robert Dick Photo by Carla Rees Dawson

Robert Dick
Photo by Carla Rees Dawson

Composer and flutist Robert Dick, or rather his much-praised manual on extended techniques The Other Flute, made an unexpected appearance on network TV this week thanks to a Jimmy Fallon sketch. The segment was devoted to a short stack of books that Fallon suggested “you probably should avoid reading this year.”

It’s perhaps naive to expect sharp, music-based humor during late night television, but the 50 seconds Fallon devoted to talking about the book consisted exclusively of sexual innuendo and character assault related the book’s title and the author’s name. During Fallon’s final remarks on the book, he turns the author shot towards the camera and asks, “Does he look like a dick to you?” The audience cheers.

(Fallon’s comments on The Other Flute begin at 2:18.)
The responses under the YouTube posting of the segment are peppered with an uncharacteristic level of smart criticism, and now Dick himself is asking friends and colleagues to reach out to the Tonight Show and support his appearance on a future episode to play The Other Flute and “blow the minds of the national TV audience.” Those who wish to add their comments can contact the show online via the network’s website or Fallon’s Facebook page.

Meanwhile, it’s a book about modern flute technique. Can someone write Fallon some better material at least?

Unfamiliar with Robert Dick’s pioneering work? Catch up with this NewMusicBox piece or buy his book.

UPDATE: Robert Dick offers this further personal insight into the matter.

When I first saw the sketch “Do Not Read — THE OTHER FLUTE” on the Tonight Show, I was incredulous, hurt and angry. This was the same, lame, “dick humor” that I first encountered at age 5. And the jokes were way far from the best I’ve heard (or sometimes made). Then I realized that, in its own bizarre way, a unique opportunity had fallen out of the sky. Because my public persona is really funny and entertaining, I might have the chance to speak up for everyone who has been mocked for being different in some way. Can you hear me, Willy the Whale, with your three voices, shot dead on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House? (I might have gotten the whole multiphonic idea from you, pal!)

And, I might have the chance to play my music for a huge audience and to show the world just how cool creativity really is. That’s why I’m asking everyone to contact the Tonight Show through their FaceBook page or to Tweet them (#InviteRobertDick @FallonTonight) to let them know that you’d love to see me on the show and that I will rock them to the core of their being.

The outpouring of support has touched me deeply. Oft times, we creators in the non-commerial realm feel that very few are listening to our music — in the last couple of days I’ve felt, as never before, that my life and work have made a difference to very many people. I’m truly humbled and grateful.

So please keep the flood of FaceBook posts and Tweets going to Tonight. If its going to happen, it will happen fast, so please act right when you read this.

With gratitude,
Robert Dick

Jerome Kitzke: Stories That Must Be Told

Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
A conversation in Kitzke’s home in New York
December 4, 2014—10:00 a.m.
Video presentation and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Although his chosen means of expression is music, Jerome Kitzke describes himself as a storyteller. “I think of pieces of music as stories even if they don’t have a text,” he explains during our morning visit to his apartment near the northern tip of Manhattan. “It’s the story of what that composer was feeling, whether they would want to admit it or not. If they say, “I’m writing a piece of pure music, it has no considerations of narrative or anything,” I don’t think that’s possible. They’re affected by what’s going on in the narrative of their lives. And it’ll affect them when they go into the studio to sit at their writing board or at their piano.”

The stories that have most deeply affected Kitzke and which he feels compelled to tell through his idiosyncratic music—a poly-stylistic amalgam of advanced compositional techniques and improvisation—frequently deal with social injustice. An Allen Ginsberg poem about cold war bomb threats serves as a mantra in his 1991 Mad Coyote Madly Sings. The recent American military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired his visceral 2008 Winter Count, which appears on an innova CD devoted to Kitzke’s music that was released last year. A recurring theme in Kitzke’s output has been the plight of Native American peoples. For him, understanding “how the United States came to be the United States vis-à-vis the native nations that were already here” is a way of coming to terms with being an American:

By doing so, I’ve always felt like I’m a better American. I understand the relationships between natives and non-natives more. … I always feel if I reach a number of people with these pieces and it pricks them into exploring some of these issues on their own, then I’ve been successful. I’ve gotten letters and emails from Indian people and non-Indian people alike that have been gratifying in the sense that the non-Indian people have often said, “I had no idea.” And these are really smart people, which is very disappointing and discouraging about our education system. They say, “I had no idea about these issues at that kind of depth.” And I’ve had Indian people who have come up to me in tears and said, “Thank you for trying to bring these stories out into the light in a way that maybe can reach more people.”

Considering his populist inclinations, it might seem somewhat surprising that Kitzke has chosen the rarified world of contemporary music as the platform for his politically charged output. But even though his work reflects a deep understanding a broad range of indigenous traditional music as well as popular culture, the Western classical tradition has been its anchor.

I can talk politics and feel political, but I’m not a politician … What I am is a composer. … How far do these pieces go in terms of reaching people? The classical concert music world is not very far, numerically speaking, right? I mean, there aren’t that many people relative to the number of people that listen to hip hop, rock and roll, and everything else. So the number of people listening to the music we create is very small. But they really are rabid, the fans, which is great. … I was doing rock and roll, and then I was introduced to Beethoven, Bach, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky. I got completely blown away by the sonic world, but also by the fact that all of that music I was hearing was notated on paper. I became very enamored with the idea of being able to create from nothing something that would be listened to and performed by musicians and heard by an audience, but the method of transferring that from the players to the audience had to do with what you did by writing something on paper. … I loved rock and roll and I still do, but this introduction to notated music just turned me in a different creative direction which I never turned away from.

Kitzke’s obsession with the written score ultimately led him down a singular path where the calligraphic elements are as important as the sonic ones. A page of a Kitzke score is often as stunning as a work of visual art. This is one of the reasons why he continues to create scores by hand rather than use computer notation software. The other is a worldview that values corporeality over technology:

I think the way that people are moving around in the environment now, with their head down as they walk the streets looking at their gizmo, is removing them further from the physical world in a way that’s not positive to me. They’re getting their information and a first look at certain things on that screen, and they’re not looking at what’s around: the architecture, the park, the trees, everything. I don’t think that’s a good thing.


Kitzke score pages in frames on a wall, an electric keyboard, and various native American trinkets.

The space where Kitzke lives and creates his music is completely idiosyncratic but also very practical. An electric keyboard and various native American trinkets on one side, piles of books on the other.

Frank J. Oteri: I was very surprised to see an electric keyboard here since you seem to be somewhat anti-technology. Maybe “anti” is too strong, but it’s definitely not a concern of yours the way it is with so many people these days.

Jerome Kitzke: No. But I do have a MacBook Pro around the corner there, so I have a computer. Actually I didn’t get my first computer—a Gbook, iBook G3 thing, which I also still have—until 2003. I got it because my girlfriend at the time was moving to London. I had gotten a Hotmail account and I would go to the local library to use the computer there to email her. Then one morning I was standing outside waiting for the library to open; it was very cold out and there was a line. And a guy comes out and says, “The boiler’s not working today. We are not opening.” So I was standing there thinking, “Now I’ve got to walk 20 blocks back home. I need to get a computer!” It was ridiculous that I didn’t have one. So that’s why I got a computer. But I’ve come to rely on it in many ways for email and word processing. The thing probably does 150 more things that I have no idea about. I’m not anti-technology, it’s just not my first concern. I do see some things about the advent of the handheld devices that I don’t like, what that’s done to society in general. But they also have really great positive purposes, too. So I see both sides of it. For me, I always base it on do I need this. I got the computer because my girlfriend moved to London, and I needed it. If I ever get a handheld device, it’ll be because I need it. I don’t have a cell phone right now.

FJO: I was thrilled that you had email, since it made it much easier for us to arrange this meeting.

JK: Well, I also have three telephones in this apartment for various odd reasons, but they never ring unless it’s a telemarketer or maybe a family member or some friends who still call on the thing. So email is the way to communicate.

FJO: But there’s no Jerome Kitzke dot com.

JK: No.

FJO: And to this day you write out all your scores by hand.

JK: Right.

FJO: So you don’t really use technology for your music much. Well, I noticed that there are CDs here, so there’s some technology.

JK: Well, yeah. My stereo, the one I had from [the age of] 19—from the early 1970s on—finally died. I had the big speakers, the receiver, the turntable, and the amplifier to play all the LPs I have. I recently got a Crosley turntable; it’s got little speakers in it, but you can also plug in external speakers. So now I can play my vinyl again.

FJO: But the keyboard that you create music on is an electric keyboard.

JK: When I use a keyboard, yeah. Most of the time I write out of my head and just use the keyboard to sort of check on things. That’s changing, oddly enough, which must be a part of the aging process. I’m hearing a little bit less in my inner ear than I used to, so I’m now using the keyboard a little more than I used to. I don’t like this electronic keyboard at all, but it’s a handy tool. It has a jazz organ stop with kind of a Hammond sound and one of my more recent works, Buffalo Nation (Bison bison) , has a big Hammond B3 part, so it was handy to just get those sounds in my ear.

FJO: It’s interesting that you compose mostly in your head because you actively perform your music as well, and with a great many people who perform the music they write, composition tends to grow out of improvisation and physical performance. But you write it and then you start figuring out how to play it.

JK: For the most part. And actually I only perform a couple of my pieces pretty regularly, like The Animist Child, the toy piano piece I wrote for Wendy Chambers in 1994, and The Green Automobile, which I wrote in 2000 for piano. I perform those pieces a lot. The Great Automobile is the kind of piece that came out of a situation. I was at an artist colony. Sometimes if you have a group of people that is small and one of them is a little off, it can really affect the vibe of everybody else. I had a really bad experience at an artist colony in 2000. I wasn’t able to work very well, but I would play a lot of piano. And I was reading Allen Ginsberg at the time, so that piece kind of came out of my sitting there at the piano and speaking the poem aloud and tinkering around on the ivories. But The Animist Child mostly came out of my head. So I do things both ways. Especially more and more, as I said, because I think my inner ear, or my brain, my body, the whole thing is changing, which is interesting. I’ll be 60 in February, and I’m just noticing that stuff changes, as we all do, as we age.

Excerpt of manuscript score for toy piano showing additional notations for percussive effects

An excerpt from the score of Jerome Kitzke’s composition The Animist Child. Copyright © 1994 by Peermusic Classical (BMI). All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Long before it got appropriated by politicians, the term maverick was bandied about to describe a somewhat disparate group of idiosyncratic American composers from throughout our musical history—
Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, Harry Partch, John Cage, and more recently people like Meredith Monk, Pauline Oliveros, and La Monte Young. All of these composers have created work that doesn’t quite fit in with the categories that existed before for music. They’ve come up with completely new ways of thinking about music as well as realizing their creations. If I were to try to describe you and what you do in a word, that word would be pretty high on my list. And I remember the terrific interview with you that was part of Minnesota Public Radio’s American Mavericks Series, so you obviously were comfortable with that word being used to describe you then. Are you still comfortable with that word? Is it a fair word to use?

JK: I don’t feel any discomfort about it, but I don’t think about stuff like that. The whole labeling of things in art and music has never interested me very much. I’ve been called many things. Being called a maverick composer feels like a compliment in a way, but that’s the extent to which I’ll think about it. I just write what I hear in my head and write based on my experiences in life. A lot of my music comes directly out of my life experiences away from the studio, away from even thinking about art and creativity. I’ve written many pieces that have to do with my perception of the relationship between the Europeans who came to this country and the native nations that were already here. That interaction, now ongoing for well over 500 years, is a fascinating one to me. And I always heard music in those interactions. So for me to write music about those ideas and those interactions, I had to really immerse myself away from any considerations of music—away from the studio and away from the city where I live. I’d spent time out west, weeks and months with people on the Pine Ridge Reservation for instance, where I spent most of my time. Out of those situations, I would then take the feelings I had there.

Let’s face it: everything we do in our life becomes a part of our experience, and it can affect how you then go about whatever it is you’re doing. If you’re creative, if you’re a writer, or even if you’re laying bricks, the way you lay those bricks can be affected by the other things that go on when you’re away from laying those bricks. I’ve been called a storyteller, which I like because I think of pieces of music as stories even if they don’t have a text. It’s the story of what that composer was feeling, whether they would want to admit it or not. If they say, “I’m writing a piece of pure music, it has no considerations of narrative or anything,” I don’t think that’s possible. They’re affected by what’s going on in the narrative of their lives. And it’ll affect them when they go into the studio to sit at their writing board or at their piano.

FJO: Considering this, it’s fascinating that even though you did not come from a Native American background, that Native American themes have been so central to your music—for decades at this point.

JK: For me it has to do with being an American, living on this continent. I feel—and have now felt for over 30 years while dealing with these kinds of issues and writing these kinds of pieces—that one of the outcomes is that I feel I’m going to be a better American by understanding these stories, understanding what actually happened, digging deeper for the truth of the interactions that occurred between these peoples. If you do that, you’ll discover really terrible, terrible stuff about how the United States came to be the United States vis-à-vis the native nations that were already here.

When I was really young, I was kind of being led to believe that there were no Indian people left. The way they were depicted in museums made it seem like they were actually not really a presence anymore; whereas in Wisconsin, where I grew up, there were nearly a dozen Indian reservations right in the state. The city of Milwaukee had many Indian people. You didn’t know it. It was just a hidden kind of thing. I became really interested in trying to write pieces that were not directed to listeners that were native people, although that’s great when that happens, but toward non-native people so they would on their own maybe explore some of these stories a little more deeply than all the stereotypical stories they were perhaps given in grade school about native nations and the relations between whites and natives.

By doing so, I’ve always felt like I’m a better American. I understand the relationships between natives and non-natives more, as rotten as these stories were, and as terrible as the situation still is to this day. Look at what’s going on in New York City right now with the Eric Garner case. The race relations are really not very good. They’re not as good as I think people tend to believe they are. So I just have always felt that I really want people to hear the pieces I’ve done and maybe, as I said, go find their own way into these stories.

FJO: You describe it as though you are an investigative reporter or a documentary film maker, but you’re a composer. That’s a somewhat odd role to have as somebody who’s so concerned about social issues.

JK: If you’ve made the decision to write a piece that deals with some of these issues, you better do your investigating, not take information that you’ve gleaned from one source or write something that’s all surface-y. If you’re going to write a piece about the Wounded Knee Massacre, you better get your ass to Wounded Knee and talk to people there. And not just read Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Brown, which is an okay book but that’s just the tiny surface.

Bookcases filled with books and a toy piano

Piles of books line one of the walls of Kitzke’s apartment as well as a toy piano.

FJO: My point is somewhat larger here. Other people who have become so concerned about these matters channel that concern in a completely different way: by writing some kind of exposé, or making a film about it, lobbying congress, or maybe even getting directly involved in politics or social work. You, however, respond through music. Perhaps you see music as something that can not only accomplish the same things as these other activities but perhaps maybe even accomplish them better.

JK: I don’t know if it could be better. I’d have to think about that. But I can only speak for myself in regard to the question you’re raising. I can talk politics and feel political, but I’m not a politician. If I were a writer, I’d be writing about this stuff. But what I am is a composer. I guess I’m an artist, too. I don’t think of myself in those terms, but if I’m an artist, I’m also wanting to make these statements artfully, in a way that’s not me up on a soapbox ranting. I don’t feel I do that in the pieces I’ve done. I’ve tried not to. There are moments that are incredibly intense about these issues, but I’ve always tried to be more subtle about how I present the material. How far do these pieces go in terms of reaching people? The classical concert music world is not very far, numerically speaking, right? I mean, there aren’t that many people relative to the number of people that listen to hip hop, rock and roll, and everything else. So the number of people listening to the music we create is very small. But they really are rabid, the fans, which is great.

I always feel if I reach a number of people with these pieces and it pricks them into exploring some of these issues on their own, then I’ve been successful. I’ve gotten letters and emails from Indian people and non-Indian people alike that have been gratifying in the sense that the non-Indian people have often said, “I had no idea.” And these are really smart people, which is very disappointing and discouraging about our education system. They say, “I had no idea about these issues at that kind of depth.” And I’ve had Indian people that have come up to me in tears and said, “Thank you for trying to bring these stories out into the light in a way that maybe can reach more people.”

FJO: For me, one of most poignant moments in that talk you did with Minnesota Public Radio was when you recalled a reaction from someone you met on a reservation when you were working on your first Indian piece: “People come and they do things and then they forget about us.” You really took that comment to heart. You did not forget and it became a permanent part of what you did. And your whole compositional trajectory since then has been a kind of giving back, an honoring of that connection that you made there.

JK: Yeah. Not every piece I’ve done in the last 30 years has been about these issues, but there have been about 10 or 12 pieces—and I’m not a prolific composer, so that’s a big part of my output.

FJO: I’m always eager to find out how people come to their mature compositional identities. Certainly there have been pieces of yours that do not deal with Native American themes, but even those that don’t still seem to have either some kind of political overtone or to tell some kind of magical or mythical story. There’s a story attached to every piece of yours I’ve heard. But was it always that way? I know that back in 1980 you won a BMI student composer award for a chorus and orchestra piece called Rime of the Ancient Mariner, but it’s not in your catalog anymore and I couldn’t track it down.

JK: It’s never been performed. It won that BMI prize. I think it needs eight timpanists, four harp players, so it’s one of those “I’m doing this because I can” things. I was 21 when I did it. It was just one of those huge pieces that’ll never get played. To the point though, Rime of the Ancient Mariner was based on the first portion of the Coleridge poem and is a kind of journey.

But even further back than that, to 1970 when I wrote my first piece of music, it came out of considerations of some of the familial themes in John Steinbeck’s The Pearl. I was 15 years old. We were reading that in high school, and my English teacher, Mary Johnson—who is still alive and with whom I’m still in touch, she lives in Wisconsin—asked me, among other students in the class, to write some musical themes based on some of the familial themes in Steinbeck’s book. And I said to her, “What are you talking about? I don’t write music.” I think she knew I played French horn badly in the high school band and orchestra, and I was in rock and roll bands. I had a Farfisa Combo Compact organ. That was my instrument and I was self taught, but I never thought about being a composer. But she saw something and I said, “Oh, okay, I’ll give it a shot.” Lo and behold, I discovered I had some innate talent. The first pieces came out of literature, so that set a pattern for me in terms of being connected to stories and having pieces tell a story, whether it’s actually using material from literature or poetry, or creating an anti-war piece or a piece about Wounded Knee.

FJO: So even back then, you were having musicians talk while they play?

JK: In 1970, no. The first instance of that would have been 1982 or ’83. By the late ‘80s and very early ’90s that really became a part of my language.

FJO: Now, I’m curious about how that plays out when you’re working with other players. You’ve had your own group, the Mad Coyote, for years and with them you can really direct how you want your music to be. But now you mostly write for other people and other ensembles that might have never dealt with a piece that involves that kind of thing. So, what’s that interaction like? Classical musicians really like having a good tone, having it sound wonderful, and getting the notes right, playing really hard music and showing they can really do it with a good tone. But you throw stumbling blocks in their way. You have to play this really hard passage and you have to stomp at the same time or you have to shout out. I know that when Guy Klucevsek recorded a piece you wrote for him that was originally supposed to be a solo, it wound up being a duo with you because he felt he couldn’t do all the additional stuff you’d asked him to do and also play the notes to the best of his abilities.

JK: Breath and Bone is what you’re talking about. Guy had premiered it as a solo. But when it came time to record it—I loved how honest he was—he said, “Look, at this moment in time, I don’t feel like I can do it justice in the recording studio and get everything right.” Would I do the vocal stuff? So we did it as a duo, which opened up a whole other world because we then did it as a duo many times and it works very well that way. Then as he played the piece, on tour all over the world, he got it in his chops and then subsequently recorded it again as a solo on a Starkland release. So it was a wonderful evolution with his eventually performing all the vocals and everything.

When I work with my own group—of course I know those people—they’ll do anything. So I don’t have to worry about that. But if I’m going to do a residency—one time I went and a group was playing a couple of pieces of mine. They were students—really good students on their instruments, but they had no feel for what it meant to shout or to stomp their feet. It just was really hard for them. They could be very dramatic on the clarinet, but very skittish about going “hey!” or “hah!” or doing anything like that. I found what really worked well is if I were there to demonstrate. That seemed to get them over the hump. And then there are some people who just are never going to be able to do it. I’ve had pianists say, “I love your piece Sunflower Sutra; I would really like to do it, but I just can’t do that other stuff in a way that I think would serve the piece well.” So I’ve had both experiences—I’ve gone and people have just been great at it instantly, and many times I’ve had to coax out of them the drama and the ability for them to use their voices and do other things that are extra-musical.

FJO: A lot of this is really about understanding and conveying character, and bringing a text to life orally. It’s about diction and public speaking, but it is also theater to some extent. Instrumental musicians don’t study acting.

JK: I often call my pieces theatrical music, especially when it has a text. Even pieces that don’t have a text are about something—a current event or an anti-war piece, for instance. I still feel these are theatrical because I want the musicians to not just be playing the notes. I try to encourage them to feel like they’re telling some kind of story.

My piece We Need to Dream All This Again from 1993 is about Crazy Horse and Custer. It’s got some vocal things in it, but there’s no text except at the very beginning, where it says Crazy Horse comes to the hill, and at the end, where it says he is in the hills to pray. Everything else is instrumental. But I’ve encouraged the players to read Bernard Pomerance’s book We Need to Dream All This Again or to read other books about Crazy Horse and Custer, just so they understand where I’m coming from and why I would create this piece. That’s a lot to ask of a performer, because it’s only an 11-minute piece. Musicians get hired and think, “Well, I’m just going to do this piece; I don’t want to read a book.” But sometimes they do it, and it’s actually very helpful for them. I also have voluminous program notes often. The pieces can work without that, but I think it’s really great to let people know why I’m doing what I’m doing.

A pile of books on the floor, one (The Earth Shall Weep - A History of Native America) on top of a banjo case

Some of Jerome Kitzke’s books.

FJO: So for an 11-minute piece, you ask people not only to rehearse the music but to read an entire book which could take many, many hours of their time. With an orchestra performance, you’re lucky if you get two rehearsals beforehand that are about maybe a half-hour each. Of course, when you’re writing for a chamber ensemble, you can get a bit more of their time, especially if the piece enters their repertoire and if they take it on tour. Still, this is a lot to ask, and certainly reading and comprehending a book that involves a complex history requires a much different skill set than playing an instrument to one’s maximum potential. But it makes me curious: in a completely instrumental performance, can you tell if somebody has absorbed what these pieces are about? How do you know? What is different about the interpretation?

JK: Wow. That’s a great question. I’ve never even thought about that. Subconsciously I’ve probably thought and just assumed when something’s going really well that they’ve gotten at least some part of the non-musical reason for doing the piece. But I can’t prove that.

FJO: I ask this because some musicians who have performed total serial music have acknowledged that they knew absolutely nothing about the way the music was put together and that they never spent time trying to analyze the music—they just played what was on the page in front of them to the best of their abilities and their interpretations were extremely convincing on a musical level. Maybe they don’t get the back story, but does it ultimately matter?

JK: I think it doesn’t necessarily matter, or it matters from person to person. I mean, there are some musicians who perhaps think a certain way about life in general and they focus narrowly on playing the piano, let’s say. And they do it so brilliantly from some sort of dramatic part of themselves that they can’t necessarily explain, and it works. Then there are others that feel they really love to know what the composer was thinking and do some exploratory work. But you can get the same result, I think.

FJO: But of course when you create music that has an attached social message, if somebody’s not getting the message—and I suppose that’s more for the audience than the interpreters—hasn’t the piece failed? Otherwise, why have the message?

JK: Well, my piece The Paha Sapa Give-Back for four drumsets and piano—it’s a really visceral experience live in the concert hall. I think it’s quite possible for an audience person to lose sight of what the message of that piece is and be completely taken up with it on a purely sonic level. To me that would be a success. If that same person also took in the message about returning the Black Hills to the Lakota, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe people, it would be a double success. Now I suppose it’s possible, of course, that there’s an audience member that won’t get any of it, and won’t get it and won’t like it.

manuscript score sample showing all parts converge to one line

An excerpt from the score of Jerome Kitzke’s composition The Paha Sapa Give-back. Copyright © 1995 by Peermusic Classical (BMI). All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: Well, I bring this up because so much of what you’ve done has a political point of view—say, for example, your anti-war pieces. This is a huge generalization which I probably shouldn’t make, but I’m going to go ahead and make it anyway. I think it would be fair to say that a majority of the folks who listen to new music are probably going to be more partial to an anti-war sentiment than a pro-war sentiment. You’re preaching to the choir; most of the folks in the audience already agree with you. How do you reach people who don’t? This was a real dilemma for composers like Hanns Eisler and Cornelius Cardew. At first, they both wrote really avant-garde music. But once they got really deep into political causes they felt they had to abandon that kind of music in order to reach a wider audience so they could get their political message across to more people. So Hanns Eisler went from writing 12-tone music to writing popular songs. Cardew went from post-Cagean conceptualism to stuff that sounds almost like Andrew Lloyd Webber. But it doesn’t sound like you do anything in terms of your compositional language to try to have it reach more people. Is that even an issue for you?

JK: It’s a total nonissue for me. I can only write what I hear in my head and hopefully have it be something that’s coming from a really deep emotional part of my interior soul. So it’s gonna be what it’s gonna be no matter what. We talked earlier about how the new music audience is a pretty small group. New York is maybe more provincial in this way. But there are some places where new music audiences are actually quite large and the demographics are very wide. The group Present Music in Milwaukee, for instance—I don’t know if you’ve ever been to one of their concerts or had music performed by them, but it’s quite an experience because the audience is 800 to 1000 people per concert without fail, and it’s mostly made up of non-musicians and non-artistic community members from the Milwaukee area. Present Music has accomplished something there that everybody always talks about wanting to do, which is they have a real audience from the community. It’s a fantastic experience. So when I do an anti-war piece at a Present Music concert, it’s not always preaching to the choir. There are a lot of people there that aren’t necessarily going to have the same view point, I don’t think. How would I know? But even if an audience is small and made up entirely of contemporary concert classical music composers, it doesn’t hurt to have a little sonic affirmation of one’s feeling about being against war. So, it’s okay to preach to the choir, I think.

FJO: In terms of getting your pieces out into the world, there’s more to it than it just being what it’s going to be. There are practical considerations, especially when you write for certain forces. You wrote a chamber orchestra piece a few years back which I haven’t yet heard. There are certain conventions that come along with writing for orchestra; how did you deal with that?

JK: Well, it’s a Kitzke orchestral piece in that there’s a lot of extra stuff that themusicians are required to do. There’s no text involved though.

FJO: Of course those extra elements are what make the work yours. But they also might make it a harder piece to program for an orchestra that’s used to playing music by Mozart, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky. All of a sudden they’re presented with this wacko piece with all of this other stuff.

JK: The piece you’re talking about is the American Composers Orchestra work I wrote called The Fire at 4 a.m., and during the rehearsals, one of the first violinists came up to me and said, “You know, this is great, because it’s really good for us to be asked to do some of this stuff, to step outside of our little safe circles of playing our instruments.” That comment was very gratifying to me. But you raise a good point, like what I mentioned earlier with Sunflower Sutra. The piece requires the pianist to really be an actor as well as a phenomenal pianist. It’s now been played by 12 different pianists around the world, and they’ve done it with different accents which is really interesting. But I’ve also had many comments from pianists who just can’t do it. What I require instrumentalists to do can sometimes be limiting in terms of me having a wider number of performers play the work, so it can be considered a little impractical. But then again, I don’t think about that stuff much, because I just have to write what I need to write and it will go where it goes.

FJO: But there are obviously people that think about that. You have a publisher, Peermusic, so you don’t have to do that part of it, for the most part. But every composer, whether he or she is signed with a third-party publisher or is self-published, has to think of these matters to some extent. These things might be somewhat impractical, but it’s significantly less impractical than a lot of the other music that has been created by so-called maverick composers. There are no special instruments that need to be built for it. There are no new tuning systems or polyrhythms that only a handful of people can actually perform. In fact, quite the reverse—there’s something very immediately physical about your music. It’s very grounded in the earth and very human in a way that I think makes it more practical. And it seems like, at least on a musical level, it has no particular structural axe to grind. It also seems completely intuitive.

JK: Yes, that’s the first place it comes from always. It always will be the reason why I even want to do the piece in the first place. But there are pieces where there are formal things going on that are private to me. I talk about them if someone wants to. I’ve always said a piece often works for me because of what the composer’s thinking about formally. There’s a formal arc. So formal structure is really important to me.

FJO: But you don’t care if an audience hears it.

JK: No, not at all. For instance, Buffalo Nation (Bison bison) , this 90-minute piece that takes 44 people to perform, tells this incredible story about bison with a huge, beautiful libretto by Kathleen Masterson. But it’s essentially a giant rondo form, where this theme comes back seven times, I think, throughout. So I’m a bit of a formalist.

A page from the score of Jerome Kitzke's Buffalo Nation (Bison bison)

The cover page of the score of Buffalo Nation (Bison bison). Music by Jerome Kitzke. Libretto by Kathleen Masterson. Copyright © 2009 Peermusic Classical (BMI). All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission.

FJO: I’m glad you’ve brought up Buffalo Nation, because of all the pieces that you describe as being theatrical, this actually is a piece of music theater.

JK: Right. I tend to call Buffalo Nation and pieces like it in my output theatrical music as opposed to musical theater because that connotes a different kind of world that my music doesn’t fit into. But yeah, Buffalo Nation (Bison bison) is a complete piece of theater that I would love to see done up entirely with all the theatrical elements—lighting, staging, sets, all that stuff. Right now it’s just been done in a concert version.

FJO: It seems like the most natural place for these kinds of pieces would be on some kind of stage. Yet interestingly you usually engage instrumentalists to speak, sing, and shout, rather than actors or singers. You do have some pieces which involve singers, but less so. I wonder if this is because of an aesthetic preference for untrained voices as opposed to trained ones. Perhaps an overly trained voice would somehow reduce the visceral quality that you want it to have.

JK: Up until the early ‘80s, I was writing vocal music. I think the last vocal piece I wrote was in 1985, a setting of Jack Kerouac’s 171st chorus from his Mexico City Blues for voice and doublebass. That’s an actual song the singer sings. And my vocal music before that was the same. After that I just became less enamored with that very stylized, kind of stiff vocal sound of classically trained singers. And I often couldn’t understand what they were singing. Language is really important to me, so I became very interested in the idea of text being spoken with music. There are many pieces like that from the past which I always loved. It’s a great way for the text to always be understood. As long as I did my job properly and didn’t obliterate someone when they were speaking, the language would always be heard.

I’d become very unsatisfied, as I said, with hearing singers sing music where I couldn’t understand the English language they were singing. Sometimes it’s the composer’s fault; sometimes it’s the singer’s fault. So I just thought I might go a different path and just use people and have them be speaking, whether they’re actors or the musicians speaking. Then when Buffalo Nation came around, talking with my librettist, she really wanted to have some songs, and I said okay. So for the first time in many years, probably 30 years or so, I finally set with a singer singing. In this case it was Kurt Ollman, a wonderful baritone. It was fascinating to me because I applied all my thinking in the past 30 years about what it means to set language and have someone sing it versus to just have someone sing the notes you wrote without really caring what the words were. And I think it worked very well. So when the singer sings the songs in Buffalo Nation, you can actually hear what’s being sung. So I’m happy about that.

FJO: So to really be a provocateur here— you said that early on your teacher had you write music. You played the French horn and you’d played in rock and roll bands, but she got you on this path. And we talked about working with singers and you said that you avoided the classically trained voice because it obscured the words.

JK: I know where this is going.

FJO: You know exactly where this is going. Why didn’t you stay doing rock and roll?

JK: Well, I was doing rock and roll, and then I was introduced to Beethoven, Bach, Dvorak, and Tchaikovsky—whom I really like a lot, by the way. I got completely blown away by the sonic world, but also by the fact that all of that music I was hearing was notated on paper. I became very enamored with the idea of being able to create from nothing something that would be listened to and performed by musicians and heard by an audience, but the method of transferring that from the players to the audience had to do with what you did by writing something on paper. I just fell in love with that idea. So, you know, I loved rock and roll and I still do, but this introduction to notated music just turned me in a different creative direction which I never turned away from.

FJO: This is probably why you’re also so attached to the physical act of writing music on paper rather than using a computer and a notation software program to write out your scores.

JK: Right. To this day, I use a mechanical pencil. I used to use ink and vellum and all that. Oh man, I couldn’t do that now. I’m too old. But I use a mechanical pencil and just the sound of the pencil on the paper—I love it. The idea of creating from a blank page to your finished score is still exciting to me. I have a BFA in composition. That’s all I got. I didn’t want to go to graduate school. But I was in school long enough to be introduced to the magnificent music and also the visually stunning scores of George Crumb. That stuff just blew my mind sonically, but also what I saw on paper I thought was just gorgeous. I could feel that guy’s spirit somehow from how he worked on the page. And I said, “That’s for me.”

FJO: Some point before you decided you were able to create music full time, you spent many years working at the American Music Center.

JK: Yeah, I was the curator of the physical collection for ten years. I took care of it. I made sure the boxes were in good shape. I made sure the scores were treated properly. It was fascinating. That was a mountain, a physical monument to creativity. What I liked about the AMC at that time is that there was no quality control. We took everything. It was just fascinating to see how many composers around the country were creating music; you’ll never hear about these people ever.

Page from a handwritten score by Kitzke showing all staves converging

Detail of “Springfield” from Jerome Kitzke’s composition In the Throat of River Mornings. Copyright © 1984 by Jerome Kitzke (BMI). All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Reprinted with permission. For many years, a framed copy of this score page was on display in the reception area at the American Music Center and was featured on the homepage of AMC’s website.

FJO: I’m curious about the impact that it had on you as a musical creator. You saw these scores of George Crumb and you felt some kind of attachment to him. Then you worked shepherding this collection of work by all these people you never met from all over the country. And this is what you wanted to do, to create artifacts like this. You didn’t want to create something that can come out of a machine. What’s missing when you don’t write out a score by hand?

JK: I always say this is just the way I have to do it. When you hear a piece that’s done entirely on a computer and all that, I’m not going to necessarily be able to tell that it was done that way. Sometimes, when you hear something where you can sort of tell a younger composer got enamored with sequencers, you can sort of hear that, but even that—who knows? I’m not sure there’s a difference.

FJO: Last year, a new CD came out devoted to your music, which was the first one in a very long period, and a CD devoted to your music from the late 1990s was finally re-issued.

JK: I re-released it.

FJO: So now there are two full CDs available of your music, but now we’re in this era where nobody’s sure about the future of CDs.

JK: Well, I still like having the physical product. You can hold it and you can open it. I still miss LPs. There were vast amounts of things you could do with the artwork on a record. But you can still open a CD and you can read about the pieces. I’m not someone who likes sitting in front of a computer screen for very long. In fact, I start to feel physically not well when I do that. So I like having the physical object. And I know a lot of people just get all of their information about everything sitting at a computer.

It’s also great to be able to hand a physical thing to somebody, instead of saying just Google me, or go to something-something dot com. There’s a situation with this record, for instance, where there are three pieces on it. One of them, Winter Count, utilizes a bunch of poetry. One of the poems is by Harold Pinter, and there were permission problems. Because of the way we were able to work out the Harold Pinter permission, Winter Count is not available as a download which is a problem for everybody that likes to get everything by downloading; they might see this online and think it only has two pieces: The Green Automobile and Paha Sapa Give-Back. But there’s this 37-minute string quartet for actor, bass drum, and string quartet that they can’t download. You have to actually buy the record to hear Winter Count. I know everyone’s saying that at some point there won’t be anything physical, but I’m not sure if that will actually ever happen.

FJO: It’s interesting to hear your perspective on this idea of taking all of our experience and un-physicalizing it, since you are so physically grounded. I think we need to make things more physical and not less physical.

JK: I agree. I think the way that people are moving around in the environment now, with their head down as they walk the streets looking at their gizmo, is removing them further from the physical world in a way that’s not positive to me. They’re getting their information and a first look at certain things on that screen, and they’re not looking at what’s around: the architecture, the park, the trees, everything. I don’t think that’s a good thing.

FJO: Yet you’ve chosen to live in New York City, of all places. You’re not from here originally. Even though many people talk about this place being an epicenter for new music, in the 21st century there’s really no center for anything. Stuff is happening everywhere and it’s easier to be connected to it from anywhere than ever before. So I wonder what makes this home for you. Why is New York City the place where you’re able to create your work? Why is this place where you decided to be?

JK: Well, I’ve been here 30 years. It had nothing to do with the arts scene here. Some really good friends of mine had moved to the East Coast, so I said, “Oh, I’m going to make a big change; I want to live in a big city for a while in my life and see what that’s like.” So I came here with a bunch of money I had saved in Milwaukee, having worked at Hal Leonard Publishers. This was in the very early ‘80s. I didn’t really start doing anything musical here until 1990 or so. For about six years, I just ate up New York and what it was. But what I started to realize is that the only way I could be here was I had to leave as much as I could. So one of the ways I’ve been able to live here so long is that I go away a lot. I’ve not spent 12 solid months here ever in 30 years. After a certain point, the places I would go to would be artist colonies and I’ve been to many of them. I love them; it’s where I tend to get my best work done. I do most of my composing at artist colonies now. I can work here in New York, but it’s becoming harder and harder for me. Here you are in my apartment; there’s construction on 215th Street. This is a one way circle here, so every vehicle in this area has to go around this corner. It’s a little too noisy here.

A group of rocks and a pouch on top of a native American rug

Susan Alcorn: Fearless Slides

Composer, improviser, and pedal steel guitarist Susan Alcorn came up playing country and western music, first in Chicago where she fell in love with the instrument’s unique timbres and then in and around Houston. But her ear eventually led her down a decidedly more singular experimental path, a journey which required the adaptation of both her instrument (changing tuning and adding strings) and her physical approach to it.

For audiences and even fellow musicians used to more straight-ahead performances, the reaction to her exploratory work with the instrument could get unsettling.

“It was like, what the hell’s she doing…and why?” Alcorn recalls, somewhat bemused. When a video of one of her performances in Paris was released on YouTube, an online pedal steel forum questioned her skill and her respect for her instrument. “They thought not only did I not know how to play, but that I was destroying the instrument. I actually got threatening emails, believe it or not! They said I was the empress with no clothes.”
A few of Alcorn's instruments
Still, in a reflection characteristic of Alcorn’s thoughtfulness in front of her instrument, she goes on to suggest “and maybe they were right, because that’s how you have to be. You’ve got to be naked in your mind to be able to play and express yourself—you have to be naked and fearless and that’s not easy, especially the older you get.”

Though she can still skillfully slide her way through country tunes, these days Alcorn is based in Baltimore and primarily devoted to her own innovative work, chasing new sounds through extended techniques, instrument preparation, and free improvisation both solo and with fellow artists old and new. But her music remains engaged with melody and beautiful chords. “Maybe that’s the country and western in me,” she says. “I like a song!”
Alcorn's well-loved pedal steel
Under the pedal steel guitar
Over the pedal steel guitar
Though Alcorn’s titles often suggest a certain epic scope—And I Await the Resurrection of the Pedal Steel Guitar and Olivier Messiaen’s Morning Conjugal Death Waltz, for example—her website doesn’t offer many details about her individual pieces and her CD booklet notes have been presented in the form of brief poems. Whether offering her music on intimate recordings or live from the stage, she doesn’t seem all that anxious to explain it in words to her listeners. “I kind of hope that [audiences] find their own meaning in it—inspiration, comfort, discomfort, whatever. And sometimes I feel like the more that I say about something, I almost feel like that takes the power away from it. The more you describe something, it weighs it down a bit.”

Though Alcorn herself prefers to play by ear and usually feels most effective as a performer that way, she does notate work for other players when needed. And when composers write for her, such as Jeff Snyder’s recent work Substratum performed by Alcorn and the Mivos String Quartet, she has even adapted their notation to a version that she can read with more facility.

“My approach has been to try and allow…the instrument itself to tell its story, not to be the boss or the master of the instrument, but to be a collaborator with it and hopefully the three of us—the instrument, myself, and these little harmonic universes—can do something, accomplish something, say something, express something that will affect people in a nice way.”

“And you either hear it or you don’t,” Alcorn says, acknowledging that her sonic explorations don’t resonate with everyone, though she doesn’t buy the idea that you need some special training to understand her work. “It’s not a math problem; it’s feeling something.”