Tag: indeterminate music

Unprecedented Time

A computer altered image of a Zoom recording session for Brian Baumbusch's music

There is no doubt that we are in unprecedented times. Living through a global pandemic has tested and revealed so much about who we are as a people and what we possess as a culture. From the social battles that we have all watched boil over and spill out onto the streets, to the emotional battles that we have all waged within ourselves over this past year, we are struggling to make sense of what the future holds. And through it all, I have learned what many already knew: that art is like a weed – stubborn and persistent. Art will push on regardless of the circumstances, and I find it to be a transcendent privilege as well as a dire responsibility to stay focused on ways to continue innovating the arts without hesitation or compromise.

My personal experience in 2020 has offered countless peaks and troughs on the emotional roller-coaster ride of life, though peppered within have been some welcomed serendipities. Dating back to the fall of 2019, I was gearing up to work on a commission for a large-scale multi-faceted project, TIDES, that had been several years in the making and involved video/media artist Ian Winters and co-composer Wayne Vitale, both long-term collaborators of mine. We laid a foundation with concrete artistic concepts and interlaced composing strategies, but due to last-minute circumstances beyond everyone’s control, that foundation cracked and we ended up dividing the musical component of the project into two separate compositions: a sound installation was to be composed by Vitale and I was to compose a live piece, and both would accompany video footage and media created by Winters. I then took on the responsibility during a five-week window to compose thirty minutes of music for TIDES to premiere in late March 2020. Indeed, this would be the first new composition that I had undertaken since the birth of my first child in May of 2019.

The piece that I composed as a result, named Tides after the larger project, is a quintet for clarinet, violin, vibraphone, harp, and piano, and as one might have guessed, the March premiere was never to take place. After completing the music in February and hosting some preliminary rehearsals with the players, our last round of rehearsals in March were cancelled one by one until ultimately the Minnesota Street Gallery in San Francisco, where the premiere was to be held, cancelled the late March performance.

As I witnessed all of this playing out, I started to glimpse the peculiar silver lining that was specific to my situation. Over the past five years, much of the music that I have composed involves the use of multiple simultaneously varying tempos, or polytempo. In order to perform this music accurately, I tell the musicians that they are required to use click tracks in performance, something that isn’t always met with open ears. Because of the fact that each click track carries its own independent tempo stream, players often express the frustration that hearing the other ensemble members adjacent to them playing in a different tempo can hinder their ability to accurately follow their own click track. In the case of Tides, I started to develop a new level of complexity in the polytempo structures that I was using, in part because I had assembled a crack ensemble of some of the Bay Area’s finest musicians, but also because the music was designed to accompany video footage created by the lead artist of the project, Ian Winters. Because of the fact that film and click-track-music are both real-time mediums, I wanted to take advantage of the potential for hyper-synchronicities between the two. All of this served to make a live ensemble performance of this piece that much more difficult.

After the Minnesota Street Gallery cancelled the premiere, they reached out about the possibility of reimagining the project so that it could be presented virtually on their website, and offered some additional funding en route to doing so. It occurred to me that not only could the project continue to move forward, albeit as a recording project rather than a performance project, but that it had the potential to be more successful this way. Since the players already had the click tracks and had been practicing along to them at home in preparation for the performance, I developed a concept that would allow for the players to record their parts directly from their own homes. I decided to break their parts up into “fragments” so that they wouldn’t have to record full takes of each movement. To do this, I snipped up each click track to the length of each predetermined fragment, and I added a “count-in” to each fragmented click track so the player could know when to enter; this was then reflected in their original part with new annotations.

Clarinet excerpt from the score of Brian Baumbusch's composition Tides.

Clarinet Excerpt from Tides, Movement 3

To produce the recording, we loaned hi-fi recording equipment to each player on a week-by-week basis so that each player would keep the equipment for a week, and then it would be wiped down, sanitized, and delivered to the next player. After finishing a recording session on a given day, the player would then upload the recordings to an online cloud drive that I had access to, and I would review them in the evening and send comments for adjustments that should be made in the next day’s recording session. Once the player had recorded all of their fragments to satisfaction, they were finished and their contribution to the project was then complete.

Unfortunately, our pianist had traveled to Indiana in the interim period after the premiere was to take place but before beginning the recording sessions. However, she had brought her electric keyboard with her which she used to maintain her remote teaching schedule. It occurred to me that if I could get her to record her part in MIDI using her electric keyboard, I could then reproduce that MIDI recording on an acoustic Disklavier and record the Disklavier playback for the final mix. I shipped a small audio interface and some MIDI cables to Indiana, and the pianist was able to use that in conjunction with her keyboard and laptop’s built-in recording software to produce the MIDI recording. Being a faculty member at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I was able to access one of the university’s Disklaviers to capture the final recording of her part.

As we underwent this unique recording process, I noticed some interesting parallels with film/moviemaking (we were in fact working together with a video artist). In film acting compared to stage acting, an actor can make use of subtle facial expressions and slight changes in their tone of voice to convey the nuances of their part. In addition, most actors who contribute to a large film project only get a small glimpse of the full production; their scenes will be shot in an order achronological to the film itself, and they likely will not interact with most of the other actors in the film and will have little sense of the overall concept or tone of the film aside from what they can gather from the script. All of this was true of our recording process. By recording their parts independently and at home, the players could record their part in whatever order they pleased, and they could narrow their dynamic range by close-miking their instruments and allowing for subtle dynamic changes to provide the necessary contours. Similarly, aside from the fact that we held some preliminary rehearsals of the piece before shelter-in-place restrictions were put into effect, there was no need for the musicians to be acquainted with one another or to have worked together before. Another similarity that I alluded to earlier is that both of these mediums are created along a careful timeline that, once completed, is fixed and exists in real-time, allowing for intricate synchronicities that are not so easily achieved in live performance.

Some of the benefits that emerged out of working this way included the fact that since the players recorded their parts independently, those recordings were acoustically isolated from one another which offered advantages as to how they could be edited in post-production. Also, there was no need to coordinate and align the limited rental times of rehearsal space with the musicians already busy schedules, something that is difficult everywhere but can be an insurmountable task in the Bay Area. In essence, as technical complexities are added in the process of producing music this way, many logistical complexities, and the resources associated with them, are removed. These benefits notwithstanding, in order for musicians to work this way they need to accept the downsides which include the fact that they don’t get to play music “together;” more specifically, the social benefits of in-person music-making, both emotional and artistic, have been thrown aside and the cathartic culmination that comes during live performance has been lost. What has been gained, on the other hand, is the opportunity to produce idealized recordings that can make use of innovative compositional ideas that push past the limitations presented by in-person music-making.


I’d like to rewind back to mid-March of 2020. At that time, I had completed composing the music for Tides, learned that the premiere was to be cancelled, and developed some preliminary ideas for how to produce the remote-recording version of the piece without having yet done so (Tides was recorded in August). Realizing that I was well poised to make use of my skill set in composing with click tracks and eager to develop new and related compositional ideas, I was hungry to work on a new project. In a sleepless night, with infant yelps coming from the other room, I started to imagine the possibility of creating a modular open-instrumentation piece (think Terry Riley’s In C), in which a large group of musicians could record modules or “fragments” of their choosing. I imagined that a piece like this might be useful for lots of musicians, maybe even possible as an open-source project, as shelter-in-place orders were descending across the country and so many players were losing work. The next step was to find a group that was in need of such a project.

The U.C. Santa Cruz Wind Ensemble is an excellent group comprising students, community members, faculty members, and occasionally hired ringers, and happens to be directed by a close friend and collaborator of mine, Nat Berman. On March 15th, I texted Nat to ask him if he knew yet what the status of his ensemble was for the upcoming spring quarter, since it seemed likely at that moment that all of the university music ensembles would be cancelled. I myself am currently in my seventh year as the director of the Balinese gamelan ensembles at UCSC, and I was unsure then of the status of my own ensembles. Nat divined my underlying plan and responded to my text saying “Do you want to write us a click track piece that everyone can record individually?” As it turned out, both of my ensembles were indeed cancelled for that spring quarter, but this new project with Nat provided supplementary work for me while allowing for the wind ensemble to avoid cancellation.

The details of the commission were worked out in the following week after my initial text to Nat, and finalized around March 23. The piece would be called Isotropes, and the general concept was that it would be designed so that the players could record their parts remotely from home using whatever recording technology that was most readily available to them (generally cell phones and laptops, though various players had their own pro-audio recording gear that they used), and they would record along to click tracks that I would provide to accompany each part. The “premiere” would then be a virtual presentation of the final recording, mixing together all of the individual recordings made throughout the quarter. The first ensemble meeting was the very next week, on March 30, so I had about a week to compose some preliminary material for the piece and generate the parts and click tracks so that the musicians would have music to work on once the quarter started.

In that first week, as I further developed my concept for the piece and composed a collection of preliminary “fragments,” I continued to prioritize the need to create an open-instrumentation modular work. One of the reasons for this was that in the week before classes started, and even a week or two into the quarter, we were unsure of how many players would enroll in the ensemble and what the resulting instrumentation would be. Therefore, the piece needed to be flexible in regard to the number of players required and the instrumentation. As a result, I organized the score so that parts would be arranged first by instrument class (parts were either considered “sustaining” e.g. winds, strings, etc. or “non-sustaining” e.g. percussion, harp, piano, etc.) and then by register. In this way, the piece became “semi-open instrumentation” in that a given part must be played in the notated register and by an instrument in the same classification as the part, but within those restrictions the orchestration is flexible. Although this concept was tailored to some degree for the UCSC wind ensemble, the piece is designed to be for “adaptable orchestra” and playable by other types of orchestras such as string orchestras, symphony orchestras, etc.

An excerpt from the score of Brian Baumbusch's composition Isotropes

Excerpt from the score of Isotropes, Part I

Between March 23 and March 30, I wrote as much material as I could so as to keep the musicians busy once the quarter began and to give myself time to go back and write more of the piece as the musicians recorded the first section. Unlike most of the pieces that I compose in which I come up with a large formal structure for the entirety of the piece before composing various sections achronologically, in this case I composed from left to right, often feeling like I was composing one measure ahead of the musicians. And so it went for the ten weeks of the academic quarter: I would compose a movement of the piece, engrave the parts and click tracks and upload them onto a shared Google drive and as the musicians recorded each of the fragments from that movement, I would go back and compose the next movement. This happened in roughly two-week intervals so that over the course of about eight weeks, I had composed the four separate movements of the piece allowing for some final edits and re-records to take place during the final two weeks of the quarter.

Similar to the concept that I described for the piece Tides, Isotropes is designed to be recorded in fragments wherein each part contains between 5 and 15 fragments per movement. There is a total of about 1000 fragments in the whole piece split between 22 parts. Each fragment has its own unique click track, and the fragments are also assigned a difficult level (easy, medium, or difficult). I transposed each fragment in all of the relevant keys so that the players could choose which fragments they wished to record (often based on the difficulty level) as long as that fragment was written for their instrument class and fell within their instrument’s register. To keep track of who recorded what, we created a giant spreadsheet containing a box for each fragment, color-coded green (easy), yellow (medium), and orange (difficult), where the players would mark their initials in the boxes representing the fragments that they planned to record.

Spreadsheet listing the various components of Brian Baumbusch's composition Isotropes

The notated parts themselves referenced the accompanying click track, each of which contained a count-in and was composed of different pitched clicks to indicate the meter of the given fragment.

A notated example of a polytempo

Rhythmically, the piece makes use of many instances of polytempo in which multiple simultaneously varying tempo streams occur between the parts. In these cases, the rhythmic notation that I chose to display for the various parts is simplified to only contain note-heads without stems, and those note-heads are roughly spatially oriented within the score. In looking at the part above, you can count 12 notes in the first measure and 8 notes in the last measure, which is evidence that this fragment is undergoing a gradual ritardando, even though that ritardando is not reflected in the global score but is only localized to this specific part. At this point in the piece, simultaneous with this part is another part that is undergoing a gradual accelerando; this occurs during the third movement in which these two discrete tempo streams begin with a relationship of 3/1 in that the faster tempo is three times as fast as the slower tempo, and over the course of about a minute they converge on one another.

This is just one of many instances of polytempo used in the piece. Other sections of the piece contain three or more simultaneous tempo streams, some of which may be changing while others remain static. Sometimes, the tempo will vary drastically between two adjacent fragments within a single part. From the perspective of the musicians, this is a non-issue because adjacent fragments are not recorded in a single take and might not even be recorded by the same player. The players’ perspective is always localized to the tempo of the fragment that they are recording at a given time, and the rhythmic complexity of the music only comes together as multiple recordings are mixed together in post-production.

In this way, Isotropes demonstrates some of the possibilities presented by the remote recording paradigm. Although it is a piece that could be performed live (while still using click-tracks), it is actually much easier to create through remote collaboration. It also justifies the use of technology, particularly click tracks, in composing and recording music. For me, the process of attempting to innovate musical time through my work with click tracks has often felt like more of a necessity than anything else. Once I decided that I was going to ask performers to use click tracks in live performance starting back in 2015, I had to justify that decision by creating music that couldn’t be made any other way. In the same way now, I hope that composers and ensembles who turn to click tracks for their remote collaborations can justify the use of that technology for reasons other than convenience or compromise.

Over the past 8 months, many ensembles have been forced to compromise their plans because of the limitations that they see resulting from the prohibition of in-person rehearsal and performance. Many have struggled as they’ve tried to adapt existing musical traditions to meet the current predicament, finding that much of these adaptations introduce difficulties and degradations to something that we are much better suited to do in person. Indeed, almost all of our music history has been predicated on our ability to manifest a group feeling of musical time, either through a unified pulse or as indicated by a conductor, while playing our instruments together in-person. This is something that we are very good at as a species and has been evidenced across the globe for millennia. However, this is not the only way to manifest musical time. As more and more musicians and ensembles are turning to recording technologies and click tracks to create music, we have a responsibility to use this technology to innovate music in ways that will expand our musical language even after a return to normalcy arrives. If for no other reason, we need to do this now because we CAN do this now. Right now is an incredible time to explore the possibilities of remote collaboration and innovative approaches to musical time, precisely because of the fact that so many musicians are at home and looking for work. In that way, the unprecedented time that we are in offers an unprecedented opportunity. We have no justification for blaming the current moment for curtailing our artistic potential. We need to start adopting new performance practices, rather than adapting or compromising existing ones.

[Ed. note: Other Minds has released a digital album of Brian Baumbusch’s music featuring both Isotropes and Tides which is available to download via Bandcamp as of December 18, 2020. – FJO]

Sounds Heard: Christian Wolff—Pianist: Pieces

[M]aking a play and not a speech, he gives us not contrary arguments but a doubling or blending of poetic accounts, not dissoi logoi [“dissonant words”], contentious and divisive… but a dissos muthos [“dissonant myth”] which indicates connections and makes out of divergences a kind of harmony.
—Christian Wolff, “On Euripides’ Helen1

wolff thomas cover

Christian Wolff
Pianist: Pieces
(Sub Rosa SR389)
Performed by:
Philip Thomas
Buy from Forced Exposure

Most composers have, at one time or another, done some moonlighting—in offices, mailrooms, taxicabs. On rare occasions, the moonlight, like the song says, becomes you: the job sticks and turns into a parallel career—Charles Ives, prominent insurance executive, being perhaps the most famous example. It’s usually regarded as more of a curiosity than anything, a commentary on the odd compartmentalization that sometimes results from the demands of making a living.

Christian Wolff—having, when still a teenager, been a student and then colleague of John Cage—decided against a traditional music education and career; instead, he earned a doctorate in classical studies and spent years teaching ancient literature at Harvard and then Dartmouth, all the while composing and performing outside the classroom. It’s often mentioned only in passing, sometimes as a tacit (or not-so-tacit) approval of Wolff’s bypassing of the musical academy.2

But, just as Ives’s insurance selling and music making were both marked by the same Transcedentalist morality, Wolff’s extensive sideline in antiquity is maybe not so foreign to his composing as it might seem. It’s not to say that Wolff’s music springs directly from his scholarly work, but, looking at the latter, you pick up echoes—there’s a consistency in the sort of things that interest him. For instance: Wolff’s particular area of expertise has been the plays of Euripides, simultaneously the most traditional and the most experimental of the Greek playwrights, constantly distending and smudging the expected outlines of classical drama with human unpredictability. Compare Wolff discussing Euripides’s play Ion in a 1965 paper—

Human feelings such as the play represents are immediately recognizable. We can call them realistic. Divine favor, on the other hand, is part of a myth, a poetic invention. Thus, similar to the repetitions in the present of a story out of the past shaping the play’s plot, there is a drama in the interaction of what is immediate and human with the remote and divine3

—with Wolff, looking back on the period in the late 1950s when a crucial part of his musical approach came into focus:

…I turned to indeterminacy at the point of performance. Chance was not used in the process of composing, but the performers were given choices to make from variously specified ranges of material (pitch, color, dynamics, location in a time space), and when there was more than one performer, they were required to play with specific reference to each other’s sounds, which were arranged to appear in ways that were not predictable. This resulted in a music that was always variable with each performance.4

And in a later paper, on Euripides’s Iphegenia among the Taurians, Wolff argues for a harmonization of the play’s use of history and ritual in terms that are not so far from the music, however varied, produced by Wolff and his New York School contemporaries:

I would like to suggest a kind of metatheatrical attention in the play to the process of interpretation. Aetiology here is both a dramatic instrument and, more abstractly, an explanatory mode. Formally it is addressed to an audience in a way somewhat different from the rest of the play’s dramatic speech, song, and action. This difference encourages interpretation and opens up the possibility of questioning….5

Aetiology—the dramatic technique of referencing a contemporary place or event by having a character reiterate its mythic origin story—is one of the most prominent of Euripides’s techniques; he didn’t invent it, but no other playwright used it as consistently, or as creatively. Wolff might well be the most stylistically restless of the New York School composers, but one possible connecting thread is aetiology. In Wolff’s music, one might say that the implied history of each piece, the fact of its composition, its notation, its interpretation and performance, is elevated to the point where it is not just present (as, one could argue, it is with a performance of any piece), but it is, in fact, how the piece is experienced. Every sound is a reminder of its own origin. Every piece is its own aetiology.

Christian Wolff, For Piano I (excerpt); Philip Thomas, piano

This new 3-CD recording of Wolff’s solo piano music by Philip Thomas itself comes with excellent provenance. Thomas is both a superb pianist, of the new music bright-and-precise school—everything in sharp focus, the range of articulations and dynamics unfailingly delineated—and an expert on Wolff’s music, his engagement with it both analytically deep and aesthetically sympathetic.

Still, the collection, even at three-plus hours, is not quite a fully rounded portrait. On the face of it, it is an Apollonian view of the composer. It combines a handful of pieces from the 1950s with a handful from the 21st century (three of which—Pianist Pieces (2001), Nocturnes (2008), and Small Preludes (2010)—are recorded for the first time). Most of the ’50s pieces are traditionally notated; the one exception, the formidable For Pianist from 1959, is the only glimpse (albeit an extensive one) of Wolff’s initial engagement with indeterminacy. The later works, part of the explosion in Wolff’s productivity since his 1999 retirement from Dartmouth, are eclectic in their compositional technique: the composer in full, experience and research now expressed as dividend. The program also might seem to make Wolff a more abstract composer than he is, especially in vaulting over those decades when he was producing his most explicitly politically engaged music (the ’70s in particular, which yielded three major works for piano: the Maoist-tinged Accompaniments (1972), and the protest-song-derived Bread and Roses (1976) and Hay una Mujer Desaparecida (1979)).

The piano solo format also makes for a more analytical portrait of Wolff, who normally has been more interested in music that plays on inter-performer communication. Thomas admits as much in his chapter on Wolff’s piano music in the analytical anthology Changing the System:

The piano music, then, provides a useful tool with which to survey developments within Wolff’s compositional technique and style. It also paints a picture which significantly differs from that usually accorded to Wolff’s output. By removing the element of performer interaction, analysis can concentrate instead upon matters of form and musical language (pitch, rhythm, texture). As the attention is more drawn to that which is determined, or present, in the notation than that which is indeterminate, and often not present, the presence of Wolff as a composer is more readily observed.6

It’s a little different in performance, or even recording—the indeterminate aspects are back on an equal footing with the notated elements. But the spirit is there. It is, I realized, not unlike director Steven Soderbergh’s recent exercise in turning Raiders of the Lost Ark into a black-and-white silent movie, the better to notice the construction. As Soderbergh instructed: “See if you can reproduce the thought process that resulted in these choices by asking yourself: why was each shot—whether short or long—held for that exact length of time and placed in that order?” In other words: what is the aetiology of this experience—technical, aesthetic, mythic?

Where to start? Probably the best place is Long Piano (Peace March 11), a singular piece, written between 2004 and 2005, that takes up the entire second CD of the collection. It’s at the same time the most monumental and mercurial piano work Wolff has ever written: an hour-long stretch of tiny fragments—95 of them, plus a prelude—composed (except for the prelude) in chronological order, but revisiting techniques and ideas from across Wolff’s catalog. There’s the political dimension: it is, as the title indicates, one in a series of works referencing Wolff’s long-held pacifist ideals. There’s the precise indeterminacy, be it sections in which (for example) only fingerings and rhythms are indicated, but in enough detail that the realization becomes even more concentrated and intense, or long sequences of fragments largely bereft of dynamic or tempo markings, leaving performer and listener to almost compulsively invent connections. There’s a chunk of the piece that reprises the intricate, mathematical rhythmic operations Wolff used in his most complex pieces from the ’50s. There are bits of folk-like diatonicism, rendered as streams of chant-like notes. There are quotations—from Schumann, from Ives; the finale is a 20-second hint of the ubiquitous medieval “L’Homme Armé.” But mostly, there’s the realization that Wolff has always been coming at the same goal from different angles: a music that finds a middle ground between the extreme, hard-edged brevity and clarity of the post-Webern avant-garde and a fluid, ambiguous mood and emotion not unlike that at the core of Romanticism. (Schumann, too, was a fan of fragments.)
That’s why the music’s aetiological bent is so enriching: it’s where a lot of that fluidity comes into play. Thomas includes two very different realizations of For Pianist, one short and scantily populated with attacks, the other longer and more dense, a demonstration hinting at what Wolff does and doesn’t leave up to the performer, even in this extremely enigmatic score—and why. For Piano I (1952) projects a jaggedly complicated rhythmic sparseness onto a restricted, almost modal collection of pitches; knowing that For Piano II (1953) was composed, in part, after Pierre Boulez criticized that limitation, and that Wolff, in response, expanded the collection to include all 88 notes on the keyboard, one can hear not only what changes—the more serial-like diffusion of harmonic implication shifting the attention to color and range and rhythm—but also what doesn’t, what remains essential to Wolff’s thinking, the high-contrast variations of touch, the respiration between event and silence, so intricately designed that it approximates an organic unpredictability. The Nocturnes 1-6 leave a lot to the performer, including the choice of what clef to use to read the notated pitches. The sound world is a solidly luminous, quasi-diatonic one. Was the notational technique the impetus for the sound, or was the sound a goal that defined the notational technique? It’s not completely apparent, which is part of the point. Wolff is getting you to notice the music’s source, its compositional and interpretive backstory, in order to get you to engage. As Wolff characterized Iphegenia, the music opens up the possibility of questioning.


1. Christian Wolff, “On Euripides’ Helen,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology 77 (1973) (back to article)
2. One exception: Michael Hicks and Christian Aplund’s recent study Christian Wolff (University of Illinois Press, 2012), which occasionally but perceptively makes parallels between Wolff’s musical concerns and his analyses of Greek drama. (back to article)
3. Christian Wolff, “The Design and Myth in Euripides’ Ion,” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology, Vol. 69 (1965) (back to article)
4. Christian Wolff, “Experimental Music around 1950 and Some Consequences and Causes (Social-Political and Musical),” American Music, Vol. 27, No. 4 (Winter 2009) (back to article)
5. Christian Wolff, “Euripides’ Iphigenia among the Taurians: Aetiology, Ritual, and Myth,” Classical Antiquity, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Oct., 1992) (back to article)
6. Philip Thomas, “For Pianist: The Solo Piano Music,” in Stephen Chase and Philip Thomas, eds., Changing the System: The Music of Christian Wolff (Ashgate, 2010) (back to article)

Intersections & Dissections

In March 2010, I was asked by Mode Records to be involved in the making of a new release of previously unrecorded orchestral works by Morton Feldman, with Brad Lubman conducting the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin. Since the studio sessions with the orchestra had proceeded ahead of schedule, we decided to also record the early graphic piece Intersection I, which had previously only been recorded by a small ensemble. It was the proper length and required no extra forces. However, there was insufficient time to familiarize the orchestra with the notation and to rehearse the piece, so I was asked to make a realization of the graphic score using more traditional notation.

Morton Feldman wrote Intersection I in early 1951, dedicating it to John Cage, whom he had met one year prior. The score is divided into four staves: woodwinds, brass, high strings, and low strings. As would become customary for Feldman, strings and brass play muted throughout, and all instruments avoid vibrato. Notes are represented by boxes on a grid. Pitches are not specified; instead, the vertical placement of the box represents the low, middle, or high range of the instrument, from which each player individually selects a note. Players on the same part begin notes on their own, but release together, with the longest possible note indicated by the full width of the box. Widths always correspond to a whole number of beats, and the beats are grouped into 4/4 measures. For the strings, Feldman also specifies different modes of playing, such as pizzicato and harmonics.
Feldman used his early graphic works to build his own musical language from scratch. In each piece, he relinquished control of certain aspects of sound in order to concentrate on just one or two—distilled form and gesture in the case of the Intersection series, building on his studies with Stefan Wolpe. But his use of indeterminacy was not bound up in a utopian philosophy, as it was with John Cage. Feldman allowed musicians to realize their graphic parts in advance, caring about “freeing the sounds and not the performer.”

Initially, I considered and rejected two strategies for creating the realization. I would not pick all of the notes myself; I wanted to work with Feldman’s instructions, not to be his co-composer. Nor would I randomize the different sound elements of the music—making the determinations necessary to execute the chance procedures seemed just as composerly as picking notes. I felt that the crowdsourced personality of the piece as implied by the score needed to be left in place.

With all of this in mind, I hit upon the idea of recording local musicians playing individually from the graphic score and transcribing the results into proportional notation. Each take would then become one of the parts from which the musicians of the DSO Berlin would perform, like actors. Though the recorded musicians would be playing outside of an orchestral context, Feldman believed that performers reacting to each other in his graphic music inevitably led to cliché. This approach would enable sounds between the different instruments to be “free” from one another.

I had no interest in artificially cultivating a very quiet, carefully finessed “Feldman sound,” since Feldman was still finding his sound when he wrote Intersection I. By working with musicians as intermediaries, the sonic reality of the piece would depend on the instruments themselves, the personalities of the players, their relationships with their instruments, and their musical history and training. It was the reverberation of an existing system, like wind blowing through an aeolian harp.


Because Feldman never made instrumental parts from the graphic score, I drew them using a pen and ruler. (By this point, I doubted he ever expected an actual performance.) With parts in hand, I assembled 25 contemporary classical musicians willing to contribute their talent and time to the project—they are each acknowledged below.

Early in the summer of 2010, I began traveling around New York City, meeting and recording the players. As expected, the open-ended nature of the notation let hear each player’s personality and relationship with their instrument virtually unfiltered. Occasionally, I would hear a player slipping into a key signature for a few measures, or outlining familiar chords. In contrast, other players would change fingerings just before playing a note in order to avoid convention. Each had their distinctive sound. In the end, I had assembled a sonic snapshot of contemporary classical performance practice in early 21st century New York.

It took many weeks of transcribing to compile the score, a task so protracted that I found myself working in Sibelius wherever I could, from back seats of moving cars to a pool house in upstate New York. Every aspect of each note had to be finessed manually—over 50,000 items in all. I dreamt of moving noteheads for weeks and compulsively organized small round objects. I also received an exceptional orchestration lesson, internalizing the sound of each instrument as I listened to the recordings.

Feldman Graphic Score

The opening of Morton Feldman’s original graphic score for Intersection I. Copyright © 1962 by C. F. Peters Corporation. Used by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Feldman Realization Score

The opening of Morton Feldman’s Intersection I in Samuel Clay Birmaher’s realization.

I flew to Berlin in late November 2010, spending my first few days exploring the snowy city on foot. By the day of the recording session, I was glad to be in the warm control room of the Radio Berlin-Brandenburg concert hall, watching the musicians on stage read the same parts I had sent overseas a month earlier. In the control room, we followed along with both the graphic and realization scores, hearing the massive sounds coming in through the monitors shift in time with the blocks of instruments on the page. Synchronicities flashed through the gray passages of cluster chords: instruments coalescing onto the same pitch, a minor chord, a perfect cadence—the collective orchestral unconscious. Those personal resonances that Feldman considered the major flaw of his indeterminate works seemed to me, as I listened, to be the vital energizing force pushing the music forward. Soon, an hour of music had passed, and six months of energy put into the realization had been distilled into the 13-minute duration of the piece.

Following the recording session, I immersed myself in Feldman’s writings to prepare to write the liner notes to the release. In July 2011, I also met with Feldman’s close friend, composer Bunita Marcus, who graciously allowed me to interview her about the music on the disc. During our talk, she lent her support to my approach to Intersection I, and indicated that it was in line with Feldman’s own attitude towards his graphic works.

After Mode released the disc that winter, there remained the question of what to do with the materials I had used to put together the realization. I knew that to perform my score a second time would be counter to the ethos the original score was written in. During the 1950s, Feldman emphasized the “sounds themselves,” so for conceptual consistency I decided to leave behind only sound. In doing so, I hoped to funnel meaning into the sensory experience of listening. I destroyed all scores in my possession and asked the few others who had copies to destroy theirs. The librarian at the DSO-Berlin has destroyed the parts at my request. All Sibelius and sound files have been permanently erased.

Aside from the short score excerpt above, this article is now all that remains of the realization process.


I am deeply indebted to the musicians who granted their time and efforts to this project: Alejandro T. Acierto, Michael P. Atkinson, Brad Balliett, Erik Carlson, Greg Chudzik, Rachel Drehmann, Emily Dufour, Gareth Flowers, Alex Greenbaum, Stephanie Griffin, Michael Harley, James Hirschfeld, Bill Kalinkos, Nathan Koci, Andy Kozar, Allison Lowell, Victor Lowrie, Amelia Lukas, Kevin McFarland, Joshua Modney, Chris Otto, John Pickford Richards, Alex Waterman, Karisa Werdon, and Jeffrey Young. Without them the realization would not have been possible.


Samuel Clay Birmaher

Samuel Clay Birmaher

Samuel Clay Birmaher is a composer living in New York City. He also performs with visual artist Matt Megyes as Gemini Society.