Tag: innovation

Pursuing Diversity: New Voices, New Sounds

Street Crowd

Street Crowd

Conversations about diversity are happening everywhere these days. The changing face of America is increasingly bringing what used to be a dodged or back-burnered dialogue to the forefront of the national debate. The visibility of this issue has grown in recent years due to highly publicized police incidents, national grass-roots protest and advocacy movements, and the resignation of university presidents. Talking about diversity can be difficult and potentially fear provoking, and can often leave people feeling defensive, shamed, or angry. But the discussion is happening. In a recent @musochat Twitter conversation, Gahlord Dewald led a fearless and poignant exchange about diversity in new music. Without presuming to have any answers, I want to expand the dialogue and rearticulate the pressing need for us to cultivate an atmosphere of active diversity in our music and projects. Not just because we should but also because the studies are clear: people thrive when surrounded by others who are different.

Diversity Is Good

As discussed in two recent articles—”Diversity Makes You Brighter” in The New York Times and “How Diversity Makes us Smarter” in Scientific American—studies routinely prove that groups that are infused with a diversity of cultures, thoughts, and disciplinary backgrounds outperform homogenous groups every time. The conclusions overwhelmingly suggest that surrounding ourselves with a diversity of people will help to make us smarter and more creative. I believe this paradigm transfers beautifully to music making and always has.

Race, Gender, and More

When we hear the word “diversity” most of us jump immediately to race. No doubt, supporting racial diversity is a serious and important issue—and many would place it at the top of the list. However, I just spent three years chairing a committee at my university to create a new cultural engagement curriculum to address historic patterns of inequity even more broadly and to help develop skills for living and growing in an increasingly more diverse world.

This goes beyond the color of our skin. We have massive work to do in areas concerning gender, sexual identity, and more. I think this is a brilliant opportunity for us all to grow. When it comes to music, we can continue to work to address these systemic issues in genuine and thoughtful ways and we will have better art for it.

But in our discipline, we can find the beauty of diversity in many other places, too.


Culture is distinct from race. Scandinavians raised in Nebraska see the world differently than those who grew up in Oslo. Asians from Idaho (me) are very different than those from China. In America, we often have cultural traditions rooting us elsewhere, and while those are often diluted over time due to assimilation over generations, these are important distinctions that I think should be highlighted, no matter how small.

Musically, this increasing interactivity means we have the whole of the world at our artistic disposal. An obvious music example from history is the effect Javanese Gamelan had on Parisian composers at the World’s Fair of 1889. Western European Art music instantly evolved upon encountering this ensemble.

The standard assembly of Western orchestral (or jazz/rock, for that matter) instruments is actually quite limited. If we open up our timbral palette to include the whole of the folk music tools and traditions of the world, think of the possibilities. I wonder what would happen if it became standard for guitarists to study the oud and violinists learned the huqin. Part of the study of these instruments would also involve understanding the intricacies of instrumental or vocal techniques, traditional melodies, and the delicate nuances of phrasing and style. But admittedly this is hard. For example, our challenge might involve finding a competent kora player and taking the time and energy to educate ourselves in writing for this instrument.

The diversity of styles and traditions across the world’s music offers rich possibilities. Tremendous precedent can be found all over music history. Think of what classical Indian music did for minimalism (not to mention the Beatles), or what Dizzy Gillespie’s interest in Cuban music did for early bebop and Latin jazz, Hungarian folk song for Bartók, Turkish music for Beethoven, and mariachi for Johnny Cash.

art palette


We can all think of a huge body of work that fits neatly in the genre boxes and helps to define a style, aesthetic, or a cultural population. Yet bending genre lines and borrowing from other styles has resulted in some of history’s most innovative work and most of my favorite music of today.

George Gershwin famously crossed from Tin Pan Alley and the “secular” popular song world to the “sacred” concert hall stage without losing his identifiably unique voice. His concert works are genre bending and I would argue that his opera Porgy and Bess is a seminal work of the 20th century and was created as a direct result of embracing diverse source materials—African American spirituals, popular swing, and European opera.

Miles Davis made a career of genre mixing by constantly searching for and borrowing ideas from those around him. In just a few examples, Kind of Blue (1959) uses a modal language that reminds us of Debussy, Sketches of Spain (1960) merges flamenco and jazz, and his groundbreaking work Bitches Brew (1970) explored the intersections between jazz, rock, and funk.

Examples of genre blurring and bending are everywhere, and while certainly not always successful, they are often key to musical innovation and creative momentum. Blues and boogie-woogie combined with country and gospel to create early rock and roll. Nirvana and Pearl Jam grew the 1990s grunge style by combining elements of punk, hard rock, and pop. Duke Ellington used his jazz vocabulary with Western European form in his elaborate suites and sacred concerts. The potential here is outstanding as we even have rock operas and such artists as Béla Fleck merging bluegrass with jazz, classical, and other world music.

Some of my favorite musicians working today are poised between genres or have created their own. One of my favorite composers, John Hollenbeck, writes for large jazz-based ensemble, the string quartet Brooklyn Rider commissions music from diverse composers from outside the classical academy (including Vijay Iyer and Ethan Iverson), and the vocal group Roomful of Teeth utilizes a wide range of vocal traditions and styles from all over the world to find a wonderful and unique sounds.

We musicians and composers can deliberately pursue a diversity of genre, sound, and thought. As an example from my own work, this past season the Universal Language Project commissioned Brazilian jazz musician Jovino Santos Neto to write a piece that merges his Latin jazz language with Brazilian folk music and the style and instrumentation of Stravinsky’s L’Historie du soldat.

In this way, we can create something new that is simultaneously intentional and unexpected.

Multidisciplinary Collaboration

Music and dance have been intimately tied from the beginning. Oddly, most musicians go through years of conservatory and academic training without any deliberate dance collaboration. Our Western European art music tradition is rooted in the baroque dance suite, and it would be inaccurate to tell the story of the evolution of jazz without talking about the music’s role in social dance.

One of the most obvious examples of collaboration is the amazing work of Stravinsky and Nijinsky. We simply would not have Le Sacre du printemps without this partnership and the confluence of these diverse artistic backgrounds.

Of course, the collaboration between music and other art forms music goes beyond dance. Think of the great partnerships involving lyricists and musicians—George and Ira, Rodgers and Hammerstein. And, while not directly collaborating, the mixing of words and music gave us Wilde and Strauss, and Shakespeare with everybody. A great diversity of multidisciplinary collaboration is possible between music and the other arts including film, theater, spoken word, dance, painting, and sculpture. We can go beyond the arts, too. John Luther Adams collaborated with science and the Earth itself for his instillation The Place Where You Go Listen, which makes audible real-time data from our planet and its weather patterns.

I wonder where else we could go.

Audience and Venue

Our medium is one of performance, and it is intimately and symbiotically dependent on our audiences. Throughout history, music has always been shaped by the intended audience—Haydn had Esterházy, Mozart had Emperor Joseph, Ellington had the Cotton Club, and Dylan had the Monterey Jazz Festival. Our music will sound different if it is intended for academia or a bar stage—and this is a good thing. Different audiences encourage us to create different music. We can learn and grow, and we are stronger for it.

It is, however, going to be up to us to figure out how to create access for all. It is a good thing to be actively courting a different and more diverse audience and to find a way to help bring them along in the artistic process. I get great encouragement from non-traditional audiences and feel that this is one of the key components of what music will be in the 21st century. The problem for us to solve is that it can be very hard to meet our expenses when we try and work outside established norms.

Finally, space matters. The choice of concert location and venue is paramount to encouraging a different interaction with audience. Experiencing a string quartet’s performance in my living room is vastly different than a jazz club, or a church, or in Carnegie Hall. We clearly understand this, as efforts to bring music to “where the people are” are well underway, but we can find ways to improve the experience for all involved and make it more sustainable while observing the utmost respect for the music.

The Win-Win

Pursuing diversity in music is a winning proposition. All of the factors I mentioned above (and there are undoubtedly more) are important in growing new and good music. I am certain that actively, overtly, and happily building diversity into our projects will continue to result in innovative works and better music.

I do realize the built-in inherited privileges and acknowledge the obstacles in our path. I see that our fear of the unknown and the pragmatic difficulty of pulling new ideas together can often cause us to take the easy road. Ultimately, however, we should explore without fear and remember, as Alban Berg quipped to George Gershwin, “Music is music.”

Digital to Analog: The Needle and Thread Running Through Technology

Daphne Oram making hand-drawn inputs to the Oramics apparatus. (Via.)

Daphne Oram making hand-drawn inputs to the Oramics apparatus. (Via.)

This is a picture of Daphne Oram, demonstrating the technology she invented: Oramics. Oram (1925-2003) learned electronics as a studio engineer at the BBC in the 1940s. She composed the first all-electronic score broadcast by the BBC—in 1957, for a production of Jean Giradoux’s Amphitryon 38—and, a year later, co-founded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. A year after that, dismayed at the BBC’s lack of enthusiasm for her work (which may be sensed in the fact that the Workshop was not allowed to use the word “music” in its name), she struck out on her own and began to develop Oramics.

Oram’s conception was a radical union of audio and visual. It was a synthesizer, but one in which the input was hand-drawn patterns on strips of 35mm film. The strips of film rolled past photoelectric sensors, and the resulting currents were converted to sound. The avant-garde possibilities of sound-on-film had been explored previously—by Oskar Fischinger, for example, or Arseny Avraamov and his Soviet counterparts (the latter well-chronicled in Andrey Smirnov’s essential study Sound in Z)—but Oramics was more ambitious, more innovative. Oram’s machine ran up to ten strips of film at once, controlling not only pitch, but amplitude, waveform, and various filters. Sound-wise, it was miles ahead of the voltage-controlled analog synthesizers of the time.

HB Oram 2This is a picture of my daughter playing with the Oramics app, an iOS-based simulation. It was released in 2011, to coincide with a special exhibition at London’s Science Museum. Oram’s original apparatus was on display—now behind glass, no longer functional. Oram had stopped working on Oramics in the 1990s, after suffering a pair of strokes; by then, the advance of electronic music had left her and her machine behind. To consider why is to, perhaps, get close to something about the nature of technology, our relationship with it, how decisions about it in one place and time shape attitudes in another place and time.

Fair warning: this article is going to take the scenic route getting to its destination—more suite than sonata. But that I should feel compelled to give such a warning is not irrelevant. Because the real question is why some things are at the center, and why some things are peripheral, and how those things get to where they are. And a good starting point for answering that question is another technology: clothes.


The Great Masculine Renunciation, M division.

The Great Masculine Renunciation, M division.

One of the great geologic-level events in the history of fashion was first named by the British psychoanalyst J. C. Flugel in his 1930 book The Psychology of Clothes. The event was, as Flugel put it, “the sudden reduction of male sartorial decorativeness which took place at the end of the eighteenth century”:

[M]en gave up their right to all the brighter, gayer, more elaborate, and more varied forms of ornamentation, leaving these entirely to the use of women, and there by making their own tailoring the most austere and ascetic of the arts. Sartorially, this event has surely the right to be considered as ‘The Great Masculine Renunciation.’ Man abandoned his claim to be considered beautiful. He henceforth aimed at being only useful.

Flugel attributed the Great Masculine Renunciation to the spread of democratic ideals in the wake of the French Revolution: with all men now theoretically equal, male fashion converged on a kind of universal neutrality. In other words, according to Flugel, the more utilitarian style of fashion spread outward from the middle class, mirroring the rise of middle-class economic power.

Flugel was, perhaps, too optimistic. David Kuchta, in his book The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity: England, 1550–1850, traces the origins of the Great Masculine Renunciation much further back, to the 1666 introduction of the three-piece suit by Charles II. Sobriety in dress was first a symbol of masculine, aristocratic propriety. Only later would the style be adopted by the middle class, in order to criticize aristocratic wealth and assert their own political power; in turn, the upper class would re-embrace the style in their own defense. Both sides, at the same time, accused the other of being insufficiently modest in their dress, of embodying not masculinity and prudence, but effeminacy and indulgence.

And note: it is entirely a parley between middle- and upper-class men. Kuchta concludes:

The great masculine renunciation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was thus less the triumph of middle-class culture; rather, it was the result of middle-class men’s appropriation of an earlier aristocratic culture, of aristocratic men’s appropriation of radical critiques of aristocracy, and of a combined attempt by aristocratic and middle-class men to exclude working-class men and all women from the increasingly shared institutions of power. (emphasis added)

What really solidified the Great Masculine Renunciation was the great geologic-level event in the history of technology: the Industrial Revolution. What was once a symbol of judiciously wielded privilege now became a symbol of efficiency, of diligence, of devotion to productivity. The uniform of economic and political power could also signify a complete congruence of work and life. Anthropologist David Graeber, in a recent article, put it this way:

[T]he generic quality of formal male clothing, whether donned by factory owners or functionaries, makes some sense. These uniforms define powerful men as active, productive, and potent, and at the same time define them as glyphs of power—disembodied abstractions.

Dress for the cog in the machine you want to be.

A couple of months ago, I was at the annual Fromm Foundation concerts at Harvard University, which featured the International Contemporary Ensemble, for which the group opted for outfits that, while realized in individual ways, still hewed close to standard new-music-ensemble dress. In fact, the few nods in the direction of rebellion—some bright leggings here, some gold-studded boots there, ICE founder Claire Chase’s metallic silver jacket—mostly just reinforced how closely the performers still orbited the standard all-black contemporary music uniform.

I’m not sure exactly when it became standard (a day of hunting through a few decades of archived newspaper reviews yielded precious little record of what performers were wearing—something, I realize, that might very well be symptomatic of what this article is discussing), but that all-black uniform has held sway for at least thirty years, which is not insignificant. Concert dress had long since conformed to the ideals of the Great Masculine Renunciation, so it makes sense that avant-garde concert dress would go even further in realizing those ideals: more stark, more neutral, more sober. And 20th-century avant-garde music, to an unprecedented extent, was a process-based movement—serialism to minimalism and everything in between—so one might expect its interpreters to take their fashion cues from the similarly streamlined and orderly world of the factory and the assembly line. But there’s something else going on with that parade of all-black, I think, and it is a bit of fallout from technological advance. And advance isn’t really the right word, in this case. We think of technological innovation as always being expansive, opening up possibilities and dimensions. But technological innovation also contracts dimensions. And the shadow of one of those contractions survives in all those black clothes.

One of the most sweeping changes wrought by audio recording and broadcasting technology was that, for the first time ever, music was no longer, by necessity, a visual as well as an aural experience. Music had always been only heard in live performance—which meant the listener was there, looking as well as hearing. (Even exceptions—Vivaldi’s female choristers singing behind a screen or Wagner’s enclosed pit orchestra or the like—were more like unusual variations of the visual context.) But with recordings and radio, the visual portion of musical performance disappeared. All one had was the sound. The technology decoupled eye and ear.

It is, actually, akin to the Great Masculine Renunciation. The process is the same: reduce a given media—and remember, as Marshall McLuhan was fond of pointing out, clothes are just as much a form of media as any other—to its discrete components, isolate what is essential, streamline it into its most basic, direct form, cast away everything else. In this case, you have two media changing in tandem: concert dress evolved toward this extreme neutrality in order to better mimic the non-visual experience of music that recordings and radio increasingly made the norm. You could even argue that the music itself started to amplify this evolution, ever more focused on sound, how the sound is organized and produced, techniques and presentation styles following the sonic impetus toward abstraction. It echoed the favored toolbox—scientific, industrial, political—for making sense of what was turning out to be a very complicated world: divide and conquer.


Pythagoras; woodcut from the Wellcome Library, London.

Pythagoras; woodcut from the Wellcome Library, London.

The purest expression of philosophical allegiance to the sound-only experience was and is acousmatic music. The term was invented by Pierre Schaeffer, the French musique concrète pioneer, to describe the experience of hearing musique concrète, or any other sonic experience in which the source of the sound was hidden. The goal of acousmatic experience was to stop thinking about how the sound was produced and start noticing the sound itself, qualities and textures that might be elided or ignored in an audio-and-visual presentation. Schaeffer likened it to Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher, supposedly lecturing from behind a veil in order to focus his students’ attention on the substance of his teachings. Thus, Schaeffer insisted, the modern technology of electronic sound reproduction was simply a recreation of ancient experience: “[B]etween the experience of Pythagoras and our experiences of radio and recordings, the differences separating direct listening (through a curtain) and indirect listening (through a speaker) in the end become negligible.”

Does it change the nature of Schaeffer’s thesis to note that the Pythagorean veil probably didn’t exist? The earliest references to it come long after Pythagoras’s time and make the veil more allegorical than real—an exclusionary implication, dividing Pythagoras’s followers into those who really got what he was teaching and those who didn’t. (Brian Kane has unraveled the Pythagorean veil—and much else—in his book Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice.) Then again, Schaeffer’s real, acknowledged philosophical reference point wasn’t Pythagoras. It was the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.

Phenomenology is not an easily summarized thing, but at its core is the act of examining what exactly we perceive in order to bring to light ways we organize and narrate our perceptions. One of the better descriptions of the phenomenological process was given by Husserl’s disciple Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his 1945 Phenomenology of Perception:

It is because we are through and through compounded of relationships with the world that for us the only way to become aware of the fact is to suspend the resultant activity, to refuse it our complicity…. Not because we reject the certainties of common sense and a natural attitude to things — they are, on the contrary, the constant theme of philosophy—but because, being the presupposed basis of any thought, they are taken for granted, and go unnoticed, and because in order to arouse them and bring them to view, we have to suspend for a moment our recognition of them…. [Phenomenological] reflection… slackens the intentional threads which attach us to the world and thus brings them to our notice[.]

It’s easy to see how Schaeffer’s acousmatic idea transfers this process into the realm of sound, veiling the relationship between a sound and its production in order to reveal how much of the sound’s nature gets lost in our compulsion to categorize it.

Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? But beneath that bright, objective surface is a nest of problems that can reiterate the sorts of presuppositions that phenomenology is meant to exorcise. Feminist interpretations of phenomenology, for instance, face the difficulty of Husserl’s idea of intersubjectivity, the assumption that other people will perceive and classify the objective world in much the same way I will. As it turns out, the “I” in that sentence is not incidental. As scholar Alia Al-Saji has written:

The consciousness that results is not only an empty, pure ego, it is also a universalized (masculine) consciousness that has been produced by the exclusion of (feminine) body, and hence implicitly relies on the elision of sexual difference. The phenomenological method’s claim to “neutrality” thus appears rooted in a form of double forgetfulness that serves to normalize, and validate, the standpoint of the phenomenological observer.

Johanna Oksala, similarly, acknowledges the suspicion “that the master’s tools could ever dismantle the master’s house.”

This might seem far away from the actual experience of music. But the thing to keep in mind is that to make some definition of the “actual experience” of music is, almost always, to make a claim of neutrality—to privilege one aspect of music (usually the sensual and aesthetic sense of timbre and rhythm and syntax) over another (usually the ramifications of the societal conditions under which the music is created or performed). And it runs into the same problem: who decides what’s essential? Every single categorical division I’ve been talking about—plain and fancy, sound and vision, parts and whole, past and present, musical and extra-musical—is similarly implicated. We call some kinds of dress sensible and some ostentatious because long-dead men (and only men) were locked in competition for who would be in and out of favor, and broadcast their convictions via the media of clothes. We analytically divide every human activity into component parts because the mechanical demands of industrial development got us in the habit. We separate aspects of musical performance by sense because a particular form of technology first did it for us, decades ago. We make divisions along lines that we never laid down.


From Daphne Oram, An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics (1972).

From Daphne Oram, An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics (1972).

Daphne Oram was temperamentally disinclined to make such divisions. Her work on Oramics turned into something resembling a new-age quest, a search for enlightenment at the boundaries of technology.  In 1972, Oram published a short book called An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics. It is, on the one hand, a chatty, primer-like overview of basic ideas of sound synthesis and electronic music, but one that, at every possible opportunity, analogizes and anthropomorphizes its subject on the grandest possible scale:

In every human being there will surely be, as we have said, tremendous chords of wavepatterns ‘sounding out their notes.’ Do we control them by the formants we build up… by tuned circuits which amplify or filter? Are we forever developing our regions of resonance so that our individual consciousness will rise into being—so that we can assert our individuality? In this way does the tumult of existence resolve itself into a final personal waveshape, the embodiment of all one’s own interpretations of the art of living?

What emerges over the course of the book is that Oramics was conceptually inseparable from Oram’s critique of technology itself—but that technology could, indeed, dismantle and rebuild its own house.

If the machines, which replace the human interpreters, are incapable of conveying those aspects of life which we consider the most human, then… the machines will thwart the communication of this humanity. But need machines be so inhuman? Could we so devise a machine that, in the programming of it, all those factors which are deemed to be the most ‘human,’ could be clearly represented?

Her positive answer was the development of Oramics. Her vision of technology was—to put it as she might—one of additive, not subtractive, synthesis.

Oram ended up on the margins of the perceived mainstream of innovation, even as she pursued her uniquely holistic conception of technology. One can speculate as to why. She was too far ahead of her time for the BBC, and, perhaps, too far out of time for the electronic music community at large. Her machine was never finished. (“It is still evolving all the time,” she wrote, “for one lifetime is certainly not long enough to build it and explore all its potential.”) She had an all-or-nothing attitude—toward her work, her employers, her colleagues. She could be exacting, stubborn, single-minded, and other adjectives that would probably sound somewhat less pejorative if she had been a man.

But Oram also never got her due because she was singular, in a way that all the technocracies that make up society, explicit and implicit, couldn’t quite encompass or process. (“My machine does not really fit into any category,” she admitted.) For all her technological prowess, Oram was the opposite of what gets assigned technological value. She was integral. She was non-repeatable. She was non-modular. She was indivisible.

In the first article in this series, I wrote:

I’ve found that one really fascinating question to ask myself while listening to music that utilizes technology—old technology, new technology, high technology, low technology—is this: What’s being hidden? What’s being effaced? What’s being pushed to the foreground, and what’s being pushed to the background?

Oram is a reminder that it’s not just what gets pushed to the background. It’s also who.

Advice from Strangers: In Pursuit of Growth

green water color forest

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

Advice from Strangers explores shared challenges in the industries of new music and technology. This column is second in the series.

A recent conference of new music professionals devoted a workshop to the subject of creative growth. Participants toiled. There were groans of frustration and murmurs of revelation. Digital devices were set aside, notecards scribbled upon, thoughts shared. Forty-five minutes were dedicated to the development of strategies for relevant, positive, reflective growth. In those minutes, hearty seeds were planted that will share their yield for a long time to come.

In tech, where I’ve worked for the past decade, we are charged with innovating, iterating, and disrupting. We invent software, undermine old industries, create needs. We make new things all the time, even as we aim to better those that already exist. And yet, I wonder: is there a mismatch between this mandate and the method in which we’re growing creatively as individuals?

Skill-based learning vs. creative growth

Even though as an industry we champion the cause of innovation, as individuals, the practical day-to-day goal is to become more functionally proficient. So when we say we grow, we mean we continually build an arsenal of skills, enabling us to increase the efficiency and robustness of software, scale technological infrastructure, and support a growing business.

But most of us are in tech because we want to do cool new things, create new stuff, explore. Isn’t it important for us to grow that side of ourselves—the creative side—as well? If our ability to encourage disruption is so important, how do we open ourselves up to and equip ourselves for opportunities to do new and different rather than incrementally better and faster at the same thing? We must learn to expose ourselves to new processes of innovation and new interpretations that can bring us out of a local maximum toward a radically better solution.

The new music community offers us a model of rigorous self-examination, a thorough and ongoing exploration of the processes leading to creative innovation. The tech community favors a skills-based approach to growth. The strategies overlap, even as the applications differ. Here are the top growth strategies of 35 colleagues from the industries of new music and tech.


Growth strategies


Accept growth as a constant

It may seem obvious, but let’s start with this: there is always something more to learn in our ever-expanding universe of experience. If we don’t acknowledge this, we ride blindly past opportunities to grow.

“The first step to my growing is accepting the fact that growth is a constant in my life,” says freelance composer Garrett Schumann. “Over the last few years, believing this has led me to invent new challenges that force me to grow as a composer and member of the new music community… I designed my dissertation to force myself out of my compositional comfort zone. It is my most ambitious vocal work to date, and the process of creating it helped strengthen my confidence in setting text and writing for voice.”

Liz Cohen, director of marketing at a crowd-funding platform for start-ups, agrees. “I am open with myself about the fact that there is tons of room for me to grow. For everyone to grow. So I listen to people around me—the people who are ‘green’ and the people who have supposedly been doing this for decades.”

Getting comfortable with growth—having the willingness to tell someone, yourself even, “there’s something important that I don’t know”—opens the door to personal development. The rest is tactics.

Physical spaces, mental spaces

“I believe in space. You need to have a space associated with learning and creating,” says Vinitha Watson, executive director of ZooLabs. (More on ZooLabs later.) She mentions a “mind palace,” and I immediately picture a richly decorated temple for my thoughts. I’m not far off: the idea is to set aside a physical place for growth—a specific room at home, a favorite cafe. Routinely associate the space with creative or learning activities, and soon that atmosphere will envelop you whenever you enter.

Another approach is to find points in your daily routine that combine well with growth tasks, like a commute or quiet moment in the morning.

“I start my day just absorbing new information, catching up on blogs across life and work,” says Orlena Yeung, a product and marketing executive. “Setting aside this time helps me warm up for the day as well.”

Create and welcome challenges

One way to stretch our creative muscles is to reach for the fringe of what we know, find the edge of what we’re comfortable with—and hover there before moving even further along.

“I seek out opportunities that will push me way outside my comfort zone,” says mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen. “I focus on projects that make me light up. Then I always ask, ‘How can I make this happen?’ Sometimes they’re my ideas and sometimes they’re other people’s dreams and ideas. I just know that I want to see those ideas through to fruition, and I will learn whatever I need to along the way.”

“Take risks,” says technology consultant Jack Kustanowitz. “The nature of technology is that everyone is always learning, so the best way to grow is to take on projects that are just outside your comfort zone. I’m not advocating a professional poet agreeing to design a banking system, but if you are a technology expert and you have an opportunity to work in an area that is 50% stuff you’ve done before and 50% things you’ll have to learn, grab the opportunity, even if it means some late nights and unbilled time.”

Kiesha Garrison, a senior business development manager at Microsoft, creates thought challenges by looking at tough problems in her industry—and ignoring their existing solutions. “I look up the unsolvables to stimulate thinking. I want to know, ‘Why is this the issue?’ rather than the answer, so I can try to think about a new answer.”

The tricky thing about taking on new challenges is making them count. After all, time and resources are limited.

“I like to grow and learn, but struggle with translating that into things I can point to and say: ‘This is what I did,’” says Carole Snyder, a developer at Microsoft.

The key: actively digest what you learn, apply it, and share it with others.

One programmer mentioned that he writes about his findings on a blog and takes on speaking engagements to compile and process his learnings. In a similar vein, Garrett Schumann took on a blogging project that led him to listen to and report on the music of 150 of the composers and songwriters who follow him on Twitter.

I asked ZooLabs’ Watson to weigh in on the question of productive learning. ZooLabs is a start-up music accelerator that is invested in the intersection of creativity, craft, and commercial viability. Residents spend two weeks on-site in a program steeped in experiential learning. They quickly consume new material, learn its direct applications, jump back into their reality, and then come back with questions.

“If your goal is to learn a good skill, learn it, then do it,” she says. “Get away from the reading of it and actually apply what you’ve learned. It’s like cooking. You look at a recipe, you know what you want to accomplish, and you’re using someone else’s guide to do that. And then you do it! You’re in the kitchen, you go back and forth between the recipe and cooking.”

Keep in mind that learning can be productive even without producing something tangible. Simply switching contexts can be refreshing, reducing cynicism and burn-out. (Note: heavy terminology ahead. You will not be quizzed on it.)

“Two areas interesting me greatly right now are digital currency and just-intonation music,” says John Reale, director of solutions architecture at a healthcare startup. “The former has me immersed in blockchain trustless verification concepts, and the latter is exposing me to scala and microtonal sound card programming. I’m not sure how much conceptual inspiration I take from these fields back to my primary, but they certainly help [keep] me from getting burned out, so I can continue to grow in fairly traditional ways without getting sick of it.”

Learning can be a high-risk activity, sometimes without financial or otherwise tangible benefits. But choosing to take on difficult challenges—and then cementing those learnings by putting them into practice—will make them meaningful.

Question yourself

Ask yourself hard, meaningful, complicated questions, and do it often.

“Force yourself to constantly question how you are doing things,” says a software engineer at Google, a creative problem-solver I worked with for several years. Soprano Hillary LaBonte agrees: “Self-assessment is key to continuous progress—not only measuring where you stand in the current music industry, but against your past self as an artist. It’s important to take stock of yourself, and align to (or counter) the changes of your field with your own artistic ambitions.”

Finding the right questions is hard, and having a process for that helps. Composer Aaron Siegel suggests starting with a goal. Here’s his method:

  1. Think of a goal you have for the next year. (It could be writing a new type of composition, learning a coding language, implementing a new feature, or reaching a different audience.)
  2. Reframe the goal as a question.
  3. Ask yourself:

+ Is this question too easy to answer? (Hint: a good question is not easy to answer.)
+ Does it lead to other questions?
+ Do you care about the question? Does answering it matter?
+ Does it have poetry—other deeper implications or relevancies?

When you’re satisfied with your question, try keeping it in mind as you go about your day. You’ll be surprised how relevant—and informative—your experiences become.

Skill-based learning requires a forcing function

I have 27 open browser tabs. My own biggest growth challenge is finding time to sit down and learn specific things. Wandering, exploring in the world—these are my brain candy, they come naturally. But when I put skill-learning tasks on my calendar, they get…overlooked.

What to do? For each learning task, Watson suggests a project-oriented approach: define a start time, an end time, and milestones for success along the way. Completing those will give a nice little dopamine dump that’s associated with advancing.

If setting milestones doesn’t work, try collaborating on the task. Being accountable to a friend or client provides a forcing function—like a gym trainer—that keeps the pressure on until the task is done. Just ask any ensemble musician preparing for a concert.

Still, you don’t have to learn every day.

“Give yourself room to breathe,” says violinist and computer science professor Sheila Oh. “Being driven makes you want to plan—but not all learning is planned. If you schedule too much of your time, you can miss out on unplanned opportunities to grow.”

Purple water color mountains

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

Wander far afield

“I’m a firm believer that becoming the best artist means becoming the best person I can be, and that includes participating as a citizen of the world, with interests that extend outside my immediate circles,” says LaBonte.

There is indeed a special kind of critical growth that is possible when we position ourselves to experience something that differs vastly from our status quo. This experience is important because it provides new and unexpected context for old ideas, breaks down familiar ways of thinking, and helps us discover and feel empathy for new audiences. So how do we go about expanding our horizons?

“Make sure you’re talking—actually having a conversation—with a very diverse group of people,” says Garrison. “Talk to people who do not all mirror you in some way, or mirror each other.”

Composers should become “rabid consumers of multiple art forms,” says Daniel Felsenfeld, composer and co-founder of the New Music Gathering, an annual conference dedicated to the performance, production, promotion, support and creation of new concert music. “We should go to artist colonies to speak to people who do things differently, to collaborate with those people, to figure out how and why they do what they do. And of course we should listen to everything, not just for professional reasons but for personal reasons. We should know the canon inside out (which, yes, is impossible) and we should always be proudly peeking into its dark corners. And we should not be content with ‘scenes’ but should strive to expand the cast of characters with whom we do our business.”

In other words: get out there and explore all of the things. There is much to learn from being around people who do not share our values and interests, beyond the echo chambers of our niche conferences, office spaces, and artist colonies.

Learning is distracting, and that’s okay

“I’m always finding new things. My struggle is focusing and getting things done,” says Gil Reich, an engineering and product lead who is a veteran of several start-ups.

It’s not all his fault. Remember my 27 browser tabs? Watson says the elusive focal point might just be the nature of how technology is designed. You go to your phone for one thing, and end up doing something else.

It’s also the nature of learning. Curiosity leads to curiosity, and that’s exactly what it should do—and not just in the arts.

“Learning with an expansive amount of time and no goals is great,” says Watson. “It allows you to go off into space and dream, which I think is definitely necessary. It’s like floating, daydreaming. There’s some benefit to letting your mind wander through a forest of information. If that’s your goal, that’s fine.”

If that’s your goal.

“Learning is serving a function, and wandering serves a function. Wandering through information is not a bad thing, but it might be frustrating if someone has different goals,” she cautions.

Friends: growth is a skill, to be learned and honed. Our colleagues’ strategies, be they creative or skill-based, apply across the spectrum of our growth needs, across and beyond the reach of our own industries. Go forth and pursue growth, whether it be within your community or farther afield. Ask probing questions. Take on challenges you’re not entirely comfortable with. Wander to the far reaches of your comfort zone. Enjoy.

Next week: community.

Tilting the Frame: Notes on an Alternative Education

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

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

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


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

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

The Main House at Mildred’s Lane.

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

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

A Bookbinding workshop at Mildred’s Lane.

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

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

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

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


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

Art in the Age: Going for (more than) a Song

While it’s relatively easy to debunk the tired jeremiad about the death of classical music, we’ve admittedly had a rough go of it lately.  Yes, several orchestras have teetered at the edge of bankruptcy after years of bad labor/management relations and prolonged strikes and lockouts.  Yes, record sales are down.  Turnout for live classical performances is down as well.  Audiences, simply put, are not willing to pay as much, if anything, for music anymore.  This has rendered recordings as largely obsolete commodities and transformed them into little more than a necessary (and expensive) calling card for professional musicians and a souvenir for audiences of favorite live concerts.

We, therefore, have to view concert presentations as much more than just about music.  We need to make them into unique events in order to attract audiences to the concert hall and generate sales for recordings that will remind them of this unique experience.  The definition of an event will vary based on many factors, largely related to the resources available to performing organizations, presenters, and individuals.  Whether it is through the use of lighting or video projections, choreography, or unusual staging, presenters and performers no longer have the option of trusting the music—however innovative or unusual—to be the sole draw for their audience.  Ignoring factors as simple as the pacing of a concert or the way one addresses the audience on stage can destroy a performance.  I’ve attended concerts by some extraordinary virtuosos who, nevertheless, approached the audience with deer-in-headlights trepidation and appeared amateurish in the process, making for a less than enjoyable concert experience.

Claire Chase performing Philip Glass's Piece in the Shape of a Square

Claire Chase performing Philip Glass’s Piece in the Shape of a Square
Photo by Marc Perlish

By contrast, a recital by the MacArthur fellowship-winning flutist and founding artistic director of ICE, Claire Chase, which I (full disclosure) hosted on my series at the Atlas Performing Arts Center last fall, was a veritable master class in how to keep an audience riveted.  Once upon a time, a recital by a flute virtuoso would entail a program of works for flute accompanied by piano (perhaps one or two short pieces for solo flute thrown in there, for variety), performed by players wearing tuxedos or ball gowns on a fully lit stage.  There would be a great deal of formality and ceremony, with the performers entering from the wings to rapturous applause, bowing, tuning their instruments, and—finally—performing.  As one piece would end, another set of bows, perhaps an exit and a new entrance, the process repeated several times until intermission, after which it would be repeated again until the end of the evening.

Claire’s performance, instead, was a veritable recreation of her 2013 album Density. It began with a darkened stage and electronic music which served as an introduction to Claire, who, after the two minutes of sound sculpture finished, burst onto the stage performing Steve Reich’s Vermont Counterpoint.  She moved seamlessly to and from different points, picking up various flutes strategically placed on the stage and only once—for Philip Glass’s Piece in the Shape of a Square—used printed music (which was, appropriately, arranged in the form of a square, thus becoming a conceptual part of the performance).  It was a simple and relatively inexpensive affair, requiring only a single performer on stage and an engineer working the combined sound and light board at the back of the house, but the results were exhilarating, a marked contrast to more traditional approaches in which talking to the audience is considered “edgy.”

It is a contradiction of these times that, while record sales and attendance at concerts appears to be down, the number of people pursuing careers as professional musicians seems to be rising.  What does this say about the apparent death of classical music? I’d wager that it means the rumors of our art form’s death are greatly exaggerated.  The truth remains, however, that it is increasingly difficult to forge a life in music in this day and age.  This is where a wider view of Adam Sliwinski’s “mutual benefit balance” which I proposed in my last article could come in handy.  A view of the network that extends beyond the 1:1 ratio of the composer-performer relationship, extending, through social and traditional media platforms as well as good, old-fashioned interpersonal relationships, to presenters, venues, social institutions, and fellow composers.  This, in my experience, is not only helpful in forging career longevity, it will extend our music’s societal impact as well.

At her commencement speech to the graduating class of Northwestern University last summer, Claire said, “(w)hether we like it or not, the calling of our generation is not to occupy positions created for us.  Our calling is to create positions for ourselves and others, to improvise and blow the ceiling off of anything resembling a limitation.  In a word, our calling is to be entrepreneurs.  Classical music isn’t dying–it’s just now being born.”[1]  She is right: we can no longer count on others to give us jobs in the arts.  We must create these opportunities for ourselves!  This spirit has certainly driven me and my work in Washington over the last ten years, and it drives a number of other younger musicians in a way that suggests not an art form that is moribund or sickly—and not necessarily one just being born, either—but a thriving, energized field where possibilities are limited only by a musician’s imagination.

1. Quoted in Jesse Rosen’s “Provocative Choices for Orchestras,” The Huffington Post, June 27, 2013, accessed January 24, 2014.

Rhythm and Restlessness

Modernist composers had some funny ideas about rhythm. Olivier Messiaen insisted that a regular pulse was actually the enemy of rhythm, since rhythm relied on differences in duration. Karlheinz Stockhausen, too, was more interested in the irregular—while he admitted that he liked to dance to music with a regular pulse, this compulsion was too “basic” for his own music.
This is all fine in theory, but in practice it can be quite difficult to write music without a regular pulse that still creates a distinct rhythmic feeling. It’s easier to find counterexamples, like Morton Feldman’s shifting meters that create an impression of floating outside of time, or the dizzyingly intricate rhythms of composers like Conlon Nancarrow or Brian Ferneyhough. While the performer must internalize these complex rhythms to an extent, for the listener these intricacies often go by too fast to be perceived. In effect, rhythm turns into texture.

Between these two extremes—sparse ambience and dense texture—are the rhythms we can typically make sense of, and this is the territory that most music explores. But I’m sometimes sympathetic to the modernist mission, the manifest destiny that wants to find new lands. What is the furthest we can go, in either direction, without entering completely inhospitable terrain? I’m especially interested in music that exists on one of these boundaries, but the problem is typically that it’s not a good place to rest. It’s a place you cruise by on the way from one area to another.

To make this a little less abstract, let’s think about the 4 against 3 polyrhythm, one of the most common polyrhythms, the one that gives so many intermediate piano students so much trouble. This should be a perfect example of a musical idea caught perfectly between two worlds. But written another way, it becomes almost trivial:
rhythm sample
Repeat this more than a couple times and it starts to sound conventional (“dum dah-dum dah duh-dum”). The restless, in-between character of it is lost. Messiaen’s argument starts to make a little sense. And this happens with polyrhythms that have larger periodicities, too (7 against 8, 11 against 13, etc.). To preserve that restless feeling, we need both a pulse and something that’s constantly undermining the pulse. And that other thing has to be in a constant state of flux as well. Compare this demonstration of Henry Cowell’s Rhythmicon, which uses static polyrhythms:

As opposed to this piece by the Claudia Quintet, with its hiccups and surprising turns:

Or even this recent David Bowie song, with vocal lines in various meters hovering over a near-constant 4/4 drum pattern:

Not surprisingly, many examples of this rely on deceptive drum beats that seem to obfuscate the “true” underlying meter. But I don’t think this is the only way to achieve this effect, and I’d like to see it attempted in chamber music more often.

Context Matters

If there’s one thing this century has taught us about new music, it’s that context matters. As concert musicians discover new kinds of venues (bars, galleries, coffee shops, coat rooms, etc.) and new forms, these efforts reinvent and reshape the concert ritual—with varying degrees of success. New Lens Concerts, a concert series directed by Juhi Bansal and Garrett Shatzer, did something very interesting last Sunday night at the Colburn School’s Thayer Hall when they deliberately omitted all titles and composer names from their programs. By subtracting a great deal of expected context, they asked us to invent our own, inviting us to let go of our preconceived notions about composers new and old, or so the theory goes.

This is a great idea. Concertgoers inevitably bring a lot of baggage to every show (everything from “I hate modern music” to “pre-1950 composers are boring”), and the prospect of leaving that mental weight behind and just listening is a thrilling one. In practice, this turns into a kind of guessing game. For me it was not unlike turning on the radio in the middle of a very exciting piece of music and thinking, “I like this. What the heck is this?” This alone creates a kind of suspense that captures the attention. The pristine virtuosity of the performances by violinist Pasha Tseitlin and pianist Nicolas Gerpe, collectively known as the Panic Duo, enhanced this impression.

This is not to say that the performance was entirely contextless. Tseitlin and Gerpe spoke a little bit before each piece, discussing the composers’ inspirations and influences (while assiduously avoiding identifying information). This was highly effective at drawing thematic connections between pieces from disparate eras and aesthetics. On the first half of the concert, Alyssa Weinberg’s Four Stanzas, an homage to Debussy, felt like a natural follow-up to Paul Moravec’s Ariel Fantasy. On the second half, Jocelyn Morlock’s Phobos and Deimos seemed to share a cosmology with George Crumb’s Four Nocturnes (Night Music II). In between, Luciano Berio’s lush Luftklavier served as a kind of palette cleanser to open the second half, but the real centerpieces were two movements from Karol Symanowski’s Mythes and Ernst Bloch’s Poeme Mystique, which closed out the first and second halves, respectively. Bloch’s thoroughly romantic work, composed in 1925, stood out a little in this setting, perhaps unfavorably so, but Szymanowski’s pieces, written four years before, were strikingly radiant. More than anything else on the program, they seemed caught between the modern and pre-modern musical worlds, with thorny, strident clusters giving way to decadent, Scriabinesque textures. In that sense, it was a highly effective manifesto for New Lens Concerts as a whole, in its mission to connect new music to its history.

As if to drive this point home, after the concert we were finally provided with programs with complete information, bringing the narrative full circle. Context lost, and context restored!
New Lens Concert program

Austin: New Concert Reboot

Big changes often come from the smallest sources. A cough, a rustling of the cough drop wrapper, the realization that the interminable amount of time and noise required by that guy to “quietly” open his cough drop is going to ruin the show for you. The further realization that, while you’d rather not have someone making any noise during the slow movement of whatever is on tap that night, the real issue is as much the forum as it is the noise. Sure, the venue might demand silence with a capital “S” but does the presentation? I’ve taken every creaky door late entrance and unmuted cell phone ring as a challenge to redouble my focus as a listener, though this sometimes makes me feel as though I must look like someone trying to bend spoons with their mind or to communicate telepathically. Then it occurs to me that if I was in a less formal setting, I would naturally take these things in stride and enjoy the show. Jacqueline Perrin has been employing this idea for the last few years with her Classical Reinvention project by presenting interdisciplinary shows in a variety of settings around Austin.

Move On by Shirley Luong set to music by Michael Mikulka

Move On by Shirley Luong set to music by Michael Mikulka

Her first effort took the form of a salon concert. Perrin performed a variety of works at the piano and spoke about the music between pieces. After that initial experience of connecting with the audience through the music, as well as through discussion of the works, she decided to develop a series of shows that have steadily gained in popularity. Her follow up, Music in Real Time, presented five works with visuals addressing the structural aspects of each work as the pieces were performed, including works by Cage and Radiohead. Interviews were conducted between pieces in an effort to bridge the gap between audience and performer. Music Under the Stars was originally scheduled to be performed on the roof of the University of Texas Astronomy building, complete with giant telescope for viewing, but was moved inside to a makeshift blackbox theater as stormy weather rolled in. Audience members created their own art in response to the performances and participated in discussions of the both their own creations and the music that was performed.

In its first move off campus, Disco Classical involved contemporary classical pieces alongside works by Astor Piazzolla accompanied by salsa dancing. Said Perrin, “The show went great, but there were a few patrons who enjoyed the bar access more than we anticipated.” Paint, Play, Plié was a multi-disciplinary endeavor featuring dancers in the FAB Gallery under UT’s Fine Arts Library. Musicians were set up in opposing corners of the room allowing for virtually uninterrupted music as dancers improvised. Artists painted on large glass panels in the center of the room, interpreting works by Paul Lansky, Schubert, Haydn, the Bad Plus, and UT student composer Zack Wilson in real time. I attended their most recent effort, Synthesis, a collaboration between Classical Reinvention and their partner group Dance Action under the auspices of the Cohen New Works Festival.
I know I’ve gone on and on about it in previous posts, but Austin in March is a magical place. Dressed in L.A. weather with blue skies as far as the eyes can see, it is prime real estate for outdoor activities of all kinds and concerts are no exception. Synthesis was conceived as a guided performance originating outside the Harry Ransom Center on the University of Texas campus.

Starting with a French horn choir and around a half dozen dancers, the first work, Whispers of a Wall, had the dancers moving on and around the small walls surrounding the pavilion. Though the arrangements (Debussy in this case) were lovely and well rendered, we came upon one of the reasons that performance outside is tricky. The sounds that we are used to having directed into our ears via well-constructed acoustical spaces (or headphones) are disseminated into the air, robbing them of much of their power. Fortunately, though there was a standing-room-only crowd for the show, everything could be heard and arguably the character of the Debussy matched the more modest dynamic. The audience looked up and through the windows to see the dancers on the second floor landing of the interior for the second work Frames, which featured the choreography of Courtney Mazeika and Victoria Mora. It was visually stunning and was beautifully matched by the voices of the UT Collegium Musicum. However, in a “cough drop wrapper writ large” moment, a rock band on the other side of campus had apparently scheduled their “Bud Light Rock Fest Concert” at virtually the same moment. Of course, the singers never missed a beat, and it’s my firm belief that the audience bent every spoon in a ten-mile radius while focusing laser-like on the proceedings.

Inside the Prothro Theater at the Harry Ransom Center

Inside the Prothro Theater at the Harry Ransom Center

Thankfully, the show next made its way into the Harry Ransom Center. Guided by the dancers, the audience walked through a phalanx of singers on its way inside and passed cellist Samuel Johnson as he and two dancers performed Tawny Garcia’s Tether, which while certainly substantial in its own right, served—as the title might suggest—as a connective element between the inner and outer performances. Once settled into the space inside, Ethan Greene’s Inventions and Interludes in Iron began to emanate from the speakers. Broken into several short, distinctive sections, the work featured dance that mirrored the fractured quality of the electronics. Jagged jaw-harps glissed high and low as SOS chirps hopped around a metallic scratching counterpoint. Another section saw regular rhythms surrounded by what sounded like re-imagined car horns, detuned and chromatic. The first movement of Michael Mikulka’s To Summon Rain, Wind, Snow, and Thunder for timpani had a quasi-military quality which matched the choreography as well as the imagery of nuclear destruction projected behind the dancers. The second movement featured glissando gestures mirrored by a solo dancer and was a respite from the initial strength of the first movement. The final movements saw a return to the military character of the first, with matching repetitive, angular moves by the dancers. It was a great closer, and frankly there are few more definitive ways of ending a show than with a guy wailing away on timpani.

Classical Reinvention is doing it right. By acting as a clearing house for collaborative work and by moving concert music to different venues, Perrin is bringing music to a new audience. She’s also not afraid to try something new in every presentation instead of simply offering a recurring concert series. In each of these shows, musicians, artists, dancers, and audiences create shared experiences that serve to broaden the perspective of all participants. And even when the Gods of Rock make their presence known, the audience is prepped to focus, listen, and bend their own spoons.

When Worlds Collide

Since 2013 started I’ve been working on a new piece through the American Composers Orchestra’s “Playing it Unsafe” initiative, which allows composers to develop pieces that combine the orchestra with all kind of experimental approaches through a collaborative workshop program that ACO aptly calls “coLABoratory”. The other composers working on “Playing it Unsafe” projects have been cooking up all kinds of phenomenal sonic ideas, involving unconventional instruments, spatial placement of musicians, and innovative use of video. It’s been really cool to witness these pieces developing as the creative process takes the participants through all kinds of twists and turns.
Speak & Spell
My piece will combine the instruments of the orchestra with the glitched sounds of obsolete electronics, all in various states of disrepair and several circuit-bent especially for the project. Below is a toy that many children of the ’70s and ’80s will remember, the Speak & Spell—an educational toy that’s been modified to create maximal sonic mayhem.

One of the most interesting aspects of trying to combine the sounds of glitched electronics with the symphony orchestra is the clash of aesthetics. The Western orchestra is based on ideals of precision, balance, and unison playing, whereas the raw and frequently warped sounds of glitched devices are largely uncontrollable, as glitches are by definition unwanted mistakes. To elevate these sonic “mistakes” to desirable effects flies smack in the face of what the orchestra is all about: presenting tightly controlled and carefully rehearsed moments that in fact vary only slightly from performance to performance. By exploring musical beauty in the random and the transient, I’m hoping to at least momentarily break the orchestra from its normal mode of operating and default aesthetic point of view.
Playing it Unsafe
It’s been interesting trying ideas out in workshop sessions, because trying to make a somewhat controlled outcome from an inherently impossible to control sound source is something of a fool’s errand, the kind of doomed attempt at conciliation only a composer would suffer. Along the way, it’s become clear to me that the piece will work best if I build in a certain amount of flexibility and freedom to react into the orchestra parts, trying to make the orchestra looser while controlling the wild glitching more closely in an effort to cultivate that narrow middle range where all the sounds can happily interact without sounding like some electronic sounds fused onto an unrelated orchestra piece.

Another part of the project involves a live video that will pulse and react to the rhythm of the music, the work of an experimental filmmaker who is figuring out how to get microphone input to drive certain kinds of changes in the video over time. Combining performance with projected images or video is such a nice balance, and it’s fun to explore the ways the motion of the video can compliment (or run contrary to) the motions created by rhythmic bow strokes and other physical gestures from the performers. It’s a wonder that more orchestras don’t make an effort to include pairings of images and music, as it’s one of the truly effective ways to help draw an audience into a new sonic experience.
Visconti video
Seeing the carved wooden curves and traditional craftsmanship of the orchestra musicians’ instruments against the abstract pulses of color and light on the video screen, I was reminded how one of the orchestra’s greatest strengths is its ability to adapt to new approaches and ends for which it was not originally intended. There are few artistic institutions that would take the addition of so many experimental elements in such stride, and when given a chance the orchestra is absolutely capable of rising to the occasion, even in a straight-up collision with musical approaches and aesthetics that run quite contrary to the orchestra’s traditional role.

If anything gives me hope for the orchestra’s viability as a contemporary expressive idiom, it’s that. I hope that this country’s major orchestral institutions will pay attention to how much the orchestra can be expanded given just a little extra rehearsal time, and throw their immense budgets behind the kind of initiative that the American Composers Orchestra has bravely supported.
(The next coLABoratory session will be on January 22 at 10 a.m. at Flushing Town Hall, in case any NYC-area readers care to stop by; all session are free and open to the public).

Music As Performance Art (Part 2 of 2)

[The following is a continuation of a thread that I began last week.]

Let’s say you’re talking to people you have just met and you tell them that you’re going to the opera that night. Unless they are classical musicians themselves, chances are fairly good that their heads will immediately be filled with cartoonish imagery of women in Viking hats screeching high notes in foreign languages. In short, their vision will be of something cold and incomprehensible, the most arcane of the fine arts.

The origins of modern opera lie in late 16th-century Florence, where a group of men attempted to revive and update authentic ancient Greek theatrical traditions. In these new versions of old dramatic forms, everything would be sung, and the great stories could be performed for contemporary audiences. This new hybrid genre enjoyed great success as popular entertainment. Patrons would eat dinner, play cards, and otherwise amuse themselves with the operatic performance as backdrop, much in the way that people today might watch television. Often, the audience members would attend the same show for several consecutive nights, with the performance functioning as the accompaniment to their more important social activities. In 19th-century Italy, opera ruled as the most popular of all forms of entertainment. Gondoliers in Venice sing operatic arias today, because those were the most well known songs at the time that their traditions became ossified as part of the tourist trade.

In large part, the great popularity of opera derived from its function as spectacle. Elaborate productions involving specially designed machinery served to enchant and entertain. When combined with archetypical (proven over time? clichéd?) plots and beautiful music, the experience could be transfixing and transformative. As opera’s popularity increased, a scenic arms race of sorts took hold that rivaled the rise in computer effects in today’s Hollywood movies, necessitating ever more special stage machinations in order to astonish the more technically sophisticated audiences.

Rock and roll has always been spectacle as well. The appeal of Elvis was in part due to his sound and in part due to his look and unique dancing style. As amplification technology improved and bands began playing to stadiums and larger audiences, they developed new lighting technology and multi-million dollar stage sets. Very quickly, bands like The Who realized that their performances were walking a very narrow line, allowing them to release Tommy as a “rock opera.” While artists like Pink Floyd and Frank Zappa continued this rock opera tradition, others, including Queen and Parliament, were creating stage shows with characters and plots, elaborate machinery, and many of the other hallmarks of the grand operatic tradition but without reference to their performances as opera. These musicians understood that the concert experience is equal parts aural and visual for those immersed in the experience.

More and more, experimental music performances are applying these concepts in order to create strong concert experiences. Ensembles are bringing this music into club spaces, incorporating video projection into their shows, and are even staging the movement of standard repertoire pieces. For two generations, composers have added staging directions to their scores, whether as simple as Crumb’s call for half masks and blue lighting for his Vox Balaenae or as complex as the movement directions in Harrison Birtwistle’s Secret Theatre. These staging elements can provide an additional abstract layer of interest that works to focus attention on the stage, to hold audience members’ attention but without providing specific semantic meaning outside of the musical argument. In so doing, staging elements can heighten the concert experience and augment the emotional impact of the music.

As a composer, one of my goals is to follow the lead of generations of rock stars towards considering musical performance as an inherently theatrical art form. From a compositional standpoint, this can function subtly through scoring for specific ensembles and playing techniques that require changing the relationship between the performer’s body and the instrument. This can also function clearly through scores that specify directions for movements, stage setup, and multimedia elements.

While this performance art owes a great debt to opera, it’s not truly a continuation of the operatic tradition. These pieces might use vocalists, but while embracing the abstract expression of wordless texts that can explore the full gamut of possible human sounds. Instead of linear—or even nonlinear—plots, the dramatic throughline can arise directly from the musical one. This blurring of the boundaries between musical performance and theatrical performance can create a new paradigm for dramatic performances without recourse to specific meaning, where the musical meaning itself creates the drama. By so doing, it can enhance new music’s capacity for expressiveness and allow experimental music to reach towards those interested listeners who grew up loving the great rock stage shows.