Tag: inspiration

Trauma, Meaning, and The Quietest of Whispers

Evan Ware in front of a train

Evan Ware. Photo by Megan Hill.

“Trauma is being pushed passed the boundary of where you are able to go,” composer Evan Ware told me when we discussed his latest piece, The Quietest of Whispers. The work is a 40 minute-long symphony for small orchestra, sculpted from Ware’s experience as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. The Quietest of Whispers addresses this part of his life obliquely: he wrote the work not to confront his abuse, but rather to share his story of survival. “As much as [the piece] is about my own experience,” Ware insists, “it’s also an invitation for other people…to be able to experience issues of trauma and the path through the trauma.”
This message is embedded in almost every detail of The Quietest of Whispers, from its title to its use of symphonic form. “It couldn’t be anything but a symphony,” he explains, “to talk about the recovery from childhood sexual abuse is extremely emotional, and it needs a huge vessel to contain that emotion.” However, Ware’s symphonic model carries with it a seemingly significant drawback: it is an instrumental genre, which, as he recognizes, makes the meaning of The Quietest of Whispers slippery.

Along these lines, two similarly themed works I know have texts which help to anchor the meaning of their symbolism. Aaron Alon’s quadrophonic, electroacoustic piece Breaking The Silence uses audio testimony from four male and female abuse survivors to document many sides of this issue (WARNING: this piece contains explicit content). Dennis Tobenski’s Only Air, for soprano and orchestra (a chamber version of which received its New York premiere on May 4), is a more traditional vocal work dedicated to the memory of five boys who committed suicide after being repeatedly targeted by homophobic bullies.

The texts Alon and Tobenski set help to solidify their music’s meaning such that it seems unlikely, particularly in the case of Breaking the Silence, that someone would interpret these works as relating to something other than their given subjects. However, the magic of this music comes from its non-textual symbolism, such as the solo soprano part in Breaking the Silence meant to “imitate a simple children’s song, one that a young child might actually invent herself.” In this regard, Only Air, Breaking the Silence, and The Quietest of Whispers all use prominent solos as a potent symbolic trope.

These passages are rich with vivid musical imagery that serves each work’s overall message. For example, the trumpet solo in The Quietest of Whispers embodies Ware, a former trumpeter, through a melodic anagram of his first name. I feel the solos not only reflect the composer’s intent, they also help their audience connect more intensely with their music. Solo instruments can act as a musical avatar for individual listeners and give them a point at which to enter into and communicate with the musical work at large. Such a connection, if it takes place, can result in an extremely meaningful listening experience; this outcome is hard to predict or depend on, however, particularly in instrumental works like The Quietest of Whispers.

Excerpt of musical score for Evan Ware's The Quietest of Whispers

Score excerpt from The Quietest of Whispers showing the musical anagram imbedded in the trumpet melody in m. 561. © 2013 by Evan Ware and reprinted with his permission.

Ware is fully aware of the challenges he faces in communicating the subject of his piece through the medium of a wordless orchestral work but is not daunted. The piece is deeply imbedded with musical symbolism designed to reflect his experience. Perhaps the most salient of these elements is the anagrammatic trumpet solo noted above, but the music’s deeper structure also works to embody its subject matter. The piece starts with anxious, unsettled ideas that move towards stability before a dramatic interruption—the representation of Ware’s abuse and its effect on his development. From here, the piece swirls, seeking confidence, the appearance of which is signaled by the entry of the solo trumpet’s theme and the arrival of A major, the piece’s “home key.”

The highly detailed and multi-layered manner in which Ware realizes his compositional intent reminds me of Bunita Marcus’s string quartet The Rugmaker, which Jenny Olivia Johnson profiled in a 2010 NewMusicBox article. Johnson writes, “The order in which Marcus accessed her memories of her father molesting her can be mapped upon the specific order of musical events in The Rugmaker.” The work’s string of highly symbolic gestures and passages evoke the constellation of memories through which Marcus navigated as she faced new recollections of her childhood trauma.

While the representative depth of these pieces’ materials and forms is certainly impressive and illuminating, many questions remain regarding instrumental works’ ambiguous meanings. For example, Ware suggests that his piece is an invitation for an interpretative dialog between his listeners’ experiences and his music’s ingrained symbols. Yet, even if we accept this premise, how do we evaluate the way pieces of music, and their composers, foster the formation of listeners’ interpretations? Can listeners draw meanings that are “more” or “less” appropriate?

Obviously, understanding a work’s background before one hears it can limit some of this chaos—at least this was my experience with The Quietest of Whispers. Ware and I spoke regularly about the piece in the months leading up to its premiere. The piece blew me away, but I knew what it was about before I heard a note. This knowledge galvanized my listening experience, but I wonder if being informed this way is necessarily the best circumstance when hearing a piece for the first time. To this end, Jenny Olivia Johnson suggests that, in some cases, an awareness of the events or experiences crystallized in a given composition does not always improve a listener’s understanding.

I sympathize with this argument, particularly as it applies to tragic or extremely personal works such as The Quietest of Whispers. With this kind of piece, the propriety of a listener’s response becomes charged. It is one thing to misread the depiction of lust in Strauss’ Don Juan, but failing to grasp—or, worse, to be moved by—the tragedy of Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 3, the reverence of Adams’s On the Transmigration of Souls, or the trauma of The Rugmaker and The Quietest of Whispers can seem embarrassing, if not disrespectful to the composer. It would seem if a work’s subject is left unexplained, at least for the first listen, these expectations are removed. In such a case, audience members could base their responses on how the music makes them feel, not how they think they should feel, or how they think the composer wants them to feel.
To be clear, I do not mean to suggest Tobenski, Alon, Ware, Marcus or any other composer feels their work deserves a certain response based on its extra-musical associations alone. The scene I have just painted is simply an impracticable, rhetorical idyll designed to explore an interesting question: do certain pieces place more interpretative pressure on listeners than others and why? While we certainly need more space to fully contemplate this issue, I think it is fair to suggest that it is the responsibility of the composer, not the listener, to make a piece of music live up to the profundity of its subject matter. Then again, I’m not sure that kind of imperative matters much if musical meaning is so hard to control in the first place.

Ware, at least, holds a firm position on this topic: while he aspires to what The Quietest of Whispers could mean, he has no interest in designating what it should mean. The autonomy of interpretation on which he insists reminds me of a point in our conversations when he described his abuse as “a framework you can’t get out of.” After working for years to overcome these constraints, it makes sense that he emphasizes freedom in this way. Perhaps more than anything else, the tale of survival represented by The Quietest of Whispers testifies to the way Ware has reconciled the trauma he experienced as a child.

Evan Ware listening to rehearsal of his music

Composer Evan Ware in rehearsals before the premiere of The Quietest of Whispers last March in Ann Arbor, MI. Photo by Megan Hill.

2012: A Baker’s Dozen

1. Get creative with JLA, Ken Ueno, Sarah Kirkland Snider and Sxip Shirey. Go on!
2. You could even just ring a bell….
3. Because you never know who might be listening.
4. No time for that? Consider talking to Kristin Kuster about it before you make up your mind.
5. In any case, it might not be a bad idea to try ditching notation software as an exercise for the future.
6. Not every musician uses it, after all. Zoe Keating doesn’t!

7. Paul Mathews takes us on a spin through The Cycle of Get.
8. While Dan Visconti plays games.

9. Turns out Isaac Schankler is really good at bending the truth.
10. RIP the woman composer. Wait, what? There are so many of them!
11. Actual RIP Elliott Carter and William Duckworth.
12. Did you know that you can still download our first NewMusicBox Mix?
13. It might actually change your life.

If this were a true baker’s dozen you would only get one piece of this amazing content for free. Instead, we offer all of our in-depth content free of charge, every single day of the year. The only way this works is if members of this community believe in our work and support us financially. Help us celebrate 15 years of publishing by making your gift today.

Additional NewMusicBox @ 15 Posts

Creative Thinking Biases

Watercolor paints
I’m currently a bit obsessed with the upswing in available information related to creativity that has taken place over the past couple of years. Lately I feel as if the swell has become even larger, with a huge inflow of books and websites devoted to the why and how of creative process and creative thinking. I have a dedicated “creativity” section within my RSS reader, and I do admit that I look forward to reading what has landed there over my morning coffee. Much of this information is targeted towards the “modern creative” (yes, it is increasingly used as a noun), focusing upon writers of all kinds, as well as assorted shapes and sizes of entrepreneurs and other people who specialize in idea-forming within a professional context. Much of this information is very relevant to composers and musicians, despite the fact that they are rarely included in the conversations.

What caught my eye this week was a Slate article about how a lot of people don’t actually like creativity at all. For instance, despite all of the job announcements that state an urgent need for creative, out-of-the-box thinkers, innovators, and so forth, the people who win those positions often have their original ideas rejected time and time again. As University of California-Berkeley researcher Barry Straw states, “We think of creative people in a heroic manner, and we celebrate them, but the thing we celebrate is the after-effect.”

In part, the issue is that when people say they want creativity, they often already have expectations—conscious and/or unconscious—about what the results might look like, and if an idea does not fall within the boundaries of those expectations, chances are it’s going to be squelched. Examples of this phenomenon exist throughout the art world, in the way some organizations are run, in the opportunities certain artists do or do not receive, and so forth. The outcome of the ideas may indeed be truly desired, but the discomfort and cognitive dissonance of bringing an idea to life involves change, and change can be hard. For many, it’s more than they can tolerate.

Anyway, I’m not totally buying some of the information that is out there, such as the subtle implication that creativity can be turned on or off like a sink faucet, or segmented in some way from the other aspects of one’s life. While it is indeed fun and inspiring to read about the daily rituals of artists, I think it takes a lot more energy and patience than cherry-picking the methods of others to figure out how to make your own art. I believe it takes a long time spent, well, making your own art and, through that process, finding out who you are and what your creative voice sounds/looks/feels like. One of my heroines of creativity is Pauline Oliveros, who has been dedicated to living her entire life in a creative manner. From the clothes she wears to how her home is arranged to the composition she is working on to how she runs her organization, it’s all one big creative act, and she is constantly tapped in, walking her talk. Needless to say, a lot of people and organizations haven’t liked this at all over the years, but she has consistently found her own path around obstacles, stayed true to her vision, and brought extraordinary projects to life. She can also always be counted on to ask pointed questions that elicit new and unusual ways of thinking about sound.

I can’t help but wonder, why is all this material about creativity coming out now? The information itself isn’t new, but there is so much discussion of it all of a sudden. Are there just more and more people who feel creatively unfulfilled out there searching for meaning? Is it somehow a reaction to technology and social media? Is it related to the diminishing arts programs within our educational system? Will it be helpful in the future to those whose educations have not necessarily fostered creativity, but who are nevertheless expected to produce original results at their places of employment, or to people who want to take up a creative pursuit later in life?

And Away I Go (Again)

Winnipeg Airport

Before heading to an airport in an extremely hot city (St. Louis), I took a moment to ponder arriving at an airport in an extremely cold city (Winnipeg) a few months ago. My year of planes, trains and automobiles continues.

By the end of June, which marks the half point of 2013, I will have been in a total of 12 cities in 4 different countries. (I’m including my home base of New York City as one of those twelve.) Although it’s all been a bit of a whirlwind, I believe I have gained many valuable experiences. But as with everything else in life, I will need to balance time to process those experiences with the time I’ll be taking acquiring new ones. It’s an even more elaborate mental dance than what I go through every time I make a decision to listen to either a brand new piece of music or one that I’ve heard before, or to do neither and attempt to create a new piece of my own. Admittedly this last option is the one that is least viable when on the road, although those experiences away from home can serve as great catalysts for inspiration on the creative front whenever there’s time to sit back and process them.

In Paris, I discovered a whole block of sheet music shops which simultaneously increased the weight of my luggage and significantly reduced the amount of money in my bank account. But I still have not had any free time to study the scores of some of Jacques Charpentier’s Études karnatiques I acquired there. (I couldn’t afford all 72 of them.) In Nice, I wandered through a remarkable musical instrument museum that made me think of some really bizarre timbre combinations, but I have not yet had time to test any of those ideas. Being back in Cannes for the third time made it seem almost familiar to me, but I met so many new people during my third time at MIDEM that it sometimes also felt like a completely different place. I still haven’t listened to all the recordings I was given while I was there.

In Winnipeg, I witnessed a miraculous performance of Steve Reich’s Tehillim that almost didn’t happen due to one of the singers becoming ill right after the dress rehearsal. This unexpected element—as well as the distinct possibility for a complete failure—kept everyone riveted and made this extraordinarily difficult piece (which to my ears was a real challenge for everyone involved during the rehearsal) come off almost perfectly as well as with more heightened emotions than any other performance of it I had ever experienced. This lesson will probably make me more relaxed in rehearsals of my own music from here on out. Or perhaps the reverse, since undoubtedly it was the adrenaline rush of this thing almost getting cancelled that pushed everyone involved over the edge and into the sublime.

In Albany, I finally got to experience a live performance by one of the orchestras most dedicated to music by living American composers, despite the fact that they perform in a hall (albeit an incredible gorgeous one with terrific acoustics) that only enshrines the engraved names of dead European composers. (Admittedly, none of the composers whose names I’d wish were also there had been born when this concert hall was first built.) There was a valuable lesson here about how difficult it is to reconcile my love of new experiences with my attachment to things and my obsession with preserving them. If you want to keep something the way it has always been, it is by definition impermeable to something new. Or maybe not. The Albany Symphony makes that old hall new every time they play a piece of new music in it, and the hall retains its authentic, unchanged 19th-century interior nevertheless!

Is it possible to both honor the old and do something new in one’s own compositions? As I explained when I spoke to a composition class at Yale back in February, this is something I ask myself all the time when I am working on a piece, as I’m sure many others do. Though inevitably to some the resultant music will sound hopelessly anachronistic, others will hear that same music as a slap in the face to tradition and everything we should hold dear and sacred—you can’t please everybody. It’s a precarious balancing act. I got my feathers somewhat ruffled in Buffalo when I heard orchestra musicians tell visiting jazz composers that they should avoid using odd meters in symphonic scores, especially since I had witnessed orchestras doing all kinds of oddball stuff only a few weeks before that.

Then again, that new oddball thing is probably rarely what the audience attending most orchestra concerts wants to hear. And aside from not being able to please anybody (if that oddball thing is what you decide to do), you also might discover that many people are pleased by things other than what you yourself are pleased by. I suppose that particular lesson hit home most clearly when I ventured across the Hudson River to Newark to visit NJPAC for the very first time. I went there and heard the New Jersey Symphony give a stellar performance of a new piece (albeit one that was not particularly oddball, at least not in the way it sounded). As is the case with most orchestra programs, they also played a frequently performed piece. And they gave a solid, but by no means life-changing, performance of it. But unlike me, the audience seemed to appreciate the more familiar music more; they went totally gaga. Then again, in Cleveland, I experienced enthusiasm and in some cases euphoria among both audience members and members of the orchestra during two nights of being exposed to music that was completely unfamiliar to them.
Therefore, no matter what I’ve encountered that might suggest the contrary, I don’t think we should try to change the music we write to conform to some kind of standard that an audience will relate to. This is fool’s gold. The audience is not a monolith. And besides, you can never completely predict how someone else will react to something. And if you try to do so and it’s not sincere, listeners will see and hear through it. But that doesn’t imply that you should be completely oblivious if no one comprehends what you’re trying to do. As I wrote here last week following up on my trip to Washington, D.C., I think that any music—no matter how arcane—can attract an audience that is larger than the audience it currently has. The onus is on all of us to spread the word about what we do and what others do that we believe needs to be heard.

In less than two hours, I’ll be making my first-ever trip to St. Louis where I will moderate a session at the League of American Orchestras Conference which is essentially about, at least as I see it, how orchestras can more effectively engage their communities by programming new music. Then immediately following that talk, I take a series of flights to hopefully arrive the following morning in Dublin, at the behest of Ireland’s Contemporary Music Centre, to publicly ponder how the digital realm will continue to change the way we experience music. Too bad we don’t yet all use the same currency or the same electrical outlets. (The latter would have shaved off an hour I spent frantically searching for the right adaptors amidst my pile of wires at home.) Anyway, stay tuned!

Elliot Cole: Hunger for the Opposite

While digging through Elliot Cole’s catalog of music, it’s easy to get caught up in the role text and stories frequently play in his compositions. Babinagar, for example, is a bewitching song-cycle based on an Afghan folktale, and De Rerum (a “hip hop lecture on the physics of history”) is wedded to wordplay.

But after chatting with him, that image shifts. The words can be vital to his work, definitely, but the core of his inspiration turns out to trace more of a pendulum swing. Cole is most comfortable and feels most productive when he can vary his approach: insider vs. outsider, text-rooted vs. pure sound, composer vs. performer, a musician dipping his toes into a wealth of styles and methods along the way. Rather than a troubadour, it might make more sense to think of Cole as a trapeze artist graced with contagious enthusiasm and seemingly inexhaustible curiosity.

“I use music to explore other things that I’m interested in, as a channel to be curious through,” Cole explains. “One way to divide up what I do is by genre—dramatic work and chamber music and hip hop. But another way to divide it is that I’m trying to deal with music on two different levels. I love composing because it lets me think about music from a really high level of generalization and abstraction, but I can only keep working on music from such a conceptual distance if I’m also as close to it as I can be in some other activity.”

That closeness is something Cole finds in performance, whether playing in bands or presenting his own music. He grew up in the rich musical environment of Austin, Texas, and it rubbed off. Now, he says, “I’m not a stellar performer, but I stay as involved as I can in actually making music. In music school, the role that we adopt a little bit too naturally is putting some performers on the stage to have kind of a bad time playing your music for an audience that is kind of stressed out by the whole experience. And you sit in the back thinking that you’re a genius. It’s just a very different experience when you’re up there doing it.”

After completing his undergraduate work in music and cognitive linguistics at Rice University where he produced “very serious and intellectually grounded” work, he stayed in Houston and wrote other pieces that “felt more real and natural and heartfelt and exciting to me,” works such as Ladies and Gentlemen which was built around a lecture by Borges, the hip hop opera The Rake’s Progress which he wrote with Brad Balliett, and Babinagar, a delicate chamber work scored for harp, contrabass, harmonium, and singers which he toured through living rooms across Texas.

Cole is now a Ph.D. candidate at Princeton, a school he jokes was the only one that would have him. “When I went to look at schools, I got a real clear sense visiting Princeton that they were open to the whole package,” he recalls. “So, I’m there because the work that I was doing, that other places might not find as serious but that I take very seriously, that was a plus for them rather than a minus.”
A big piece of this catalog that Cole feels doesn’t fit so comfortably can once again be traced back to his desire to work at the edges of genre and institutions. “I feel like there’s a real focus and value in contemporary music on being an insider,” he explains. “Being in a territory where everyone is focused on being an insider, I really find it fun and liberating to have something that I’m doing where I’m a total outsider—where I don’t have credibility. For me, that’s hip hop.”

It’s work that he’s exploring together with performer/composers Brad and Doug Balliett under the project name Oracle Hysterical, an organization that Cole characterizes as kind of a band and kind of composer’s collective, but really more of a book club. The group uses text, such as Melville’s Billy Budd (a recent example), and reads and writes their way to a piece of music, motivating and inspiring one another. Writing the metric poetry used in the lyrics is work that Cole finds provides a neat parallel to composition. “It’s really simulating imaginatively because every pair of lines is a puzzle that you have to work out. I really like writing music that is the solving of puzzles because then you’re in a relationship with it where it’s as much a process of discovery as creation.”

Still, sometimes Cole sets the words aside to, again, escape into something else. To scratch that itch last year, he wrote more than an hour of chamber music, including Postludes, a set of eight pieces for four performers on one vibraphone that was written for So Percussion. Cole is also an active computer programmer and has been working to develop an algorithmic composition and deep-listening environment using SuperCollider. He found that being able to think about music from the point of view of computer programming provided some new clarity, which he explains in more detail in the video below.

Admittedly, more tightly integrating all these varied areas of interest might be more productive and efficient, and Cole wonders how his diversification may be preventing him from establishing a clearly identifiable voice. Still, his flexibility is an essential underpinning linking his work—when one project or area becomes frustrating, he has another to move to. This also extends to his compositional methods. He says that he “may begin at the piano and at a point of impasse or frustration, write on paper and see what grows out of that. Or type it into the computer or try to learn it on guitar or sing it. By these processes of translation, I can kind of keep a flow through the writing. It’s an intrinsic part of how I get notes on the page and how I get to the end of the idea.”
Ultimately, his curiosity keeps him from shelving any possibilities. “I’m stupid enough to think that I can still do everything,” he explains with a self-deprecating laugh. “If there’s a chance for two majors, I’ll take it; if I have a chance to write a piece for a group, I’ll write two pieces. I’m always having to fork and do both.”

Big Ideas

Last week, the MacArthur Foundation announced their annual grants to individuals. Commonly referred to as “Genius” grants, they honor people (chosen without a formal application process) who have made and will continue to make a significant contribution to any field—former recipients range from economists to a juggler. This year, I was elated to discover that the amazing Claire Chase, flutist extraordinaire and founder of the International Contemporary Ensemble (commonly called ICE) numbers among this elite group.

ICE’s very first concert, in Chicago, happened to be the night before a music appreciation class that I was teaching had their concert reports due. The confluence between a free concert and an imminent deadline inspired a remarkable number of my students to attend this event. I was quite intrigued by their descriptions of the performances of Bach and Reich, and so made certain to be in attendance at their second show. I was incredibly impressed by the musicality of these recent Oberlin alumni, and became a regular at all of their events. Claire quickly proved that she stood apart from other musicians and concert organizers by seeking me out in order to find out what kept bringing me back to these concerts. Once she found out that I was a composer, she asked to hear my music and within days of receiving my cassette (yes, this was ten years ago) had listened to it and had comments for me. Since that first season, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed watching ICE grow from a scrappy young consortium into one of the premiere concertizing organizations on the new music scene.

During the early days of ICE, I enjoyed the intense pleasure of regular breakfast meetings with Claire at a neighborhood restaurant. On these occasions, we’d bounce ideas off of each other. I’d tell her about upcoming projects and the sorts of pieces that I wanted to write but for some reason or another couldn’t make happen. She’d tell me about her dreams for the future of ICE. She always had grand plans—concepts that involved collaboration with people from several different artistic fields or countries—the sorts of artistic fantasies that obviously couldn’t happen within their current budget and other constraints. Here is the crux of the matter: Claire carefully considered these visions and never wavered from her chosen path. In time, she completed each of these projects and each one of them was an incredible artistic success.

I’ve come to believe that this ability to conceive and execute big ideas constitutes the trait that separates those people who create life-changing art from the rest of us. When I think about the composers whose work truly excite me, it’s invariably the ones who re-define artistic paradigms. Event pieces like John Luther Adams’ Inuksuit, Louis Andriessen’s De Materie, David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion, or Michael Hersch’s Vanishing Pavilions force us to listen in a different way. By expanding our ability to concentrate and forcing us to consider time in new ways, they bring us close to the sorts of transcendent experiences that I treasure.

Lately, I’ve been trying to internalize the lessons that I should have learned from Claire a decade ago. Instead of compromising my artistic visions in order to tailor them to the realm of the possible, I’m attempting to follow wherever they lead—even when the goals seem unlikely at best. I’m turning away from good projects in order to focus my attention on those rare opportunities that I need to create for myself. Sometimes the good can be the enemy of the perfect in the opposite sense of the usual application of this phrase. In our pursuit of those objectives that we can clearly accomplish, we can prevent ourselves from working towards those dreams that can truly change our lives.

To my mind, that has always been the true genius of Claire, that she always understood the importance of big ideas and never wavered from those targets.

Instruments for Playing Water

Recently, I’ve been working closely with the artist Katherine Kavanaugh as she has designed and built a sculptural installation using bamboo, water, a plexiglass pool, and copper. On Saturday, I’ll perform a new composition at the installation’s official opening that I’m creating along with three fantastic musicians: Jacqueline Pollauf and Noah Getz of Pictures on Silence, and Peabody student composer Benjamin Buchanan.

My concept for the musical performance involves playing the water and other parts of the sculpture directly, and also moving throughout the space in order to evoke a ritualistic sensibility and to involve the entire gallery in the staging. As part of our collaboration, Katherine and I spent a great deal of time considering what tools we would utilize to create the musical sounds. Although we never officially voiced this constraint, we decided to limit ourselves to further manifestations of the materials contained within the installation itself. Bamboo cut to various lengths functions as mallet, trumpet, resonator, and even bubble producer; copper bowls become percussive devices and tone generators; crystal goblets (standing in for plexiglass) add another pitched element and the ability to create melodies.

Last weekend, all the musicians gathered in the VisArts gallery in order to explore the completed installation for the first time. As we physically examined the sculptural materials in order to see what intriguing sounds could be generated from the objects at hand, our varying sensibilities and proclivities allowed each person to produce unique ideas that would eventually be woven into the final sound world. Our united efforts quickly began to merge into a composition that hopefully has a discernible shape and structure and will allow visitors to experience the art in a new light. The curator tells me that she plans to display a video of the performance running on a loop in the gallery in hopes that patrons will continue to conceive of the sculptural display as engendering sonic ideas through time.

Although in our discussions, Katherine and I had agreed that she would leave the performance implements visible in the gallery as part of the overall whole, I was delightfully surprised to find them officially displayed, complete with a tag identifying them as “Instruments for Playing Water.” Yes, that’s exactly what they are. And yet, I found that the mere act of affixing this label to the wall had elevated these devices—which had seemed so utilitarian to me only days earlier—to an integral part of the installation itself. I had once seen these objects as tools, but now in my mind they metamorphosed into sculptures. Of course, I still needed to use them in order to create music, but my relationship with these little devices had been inextricably altered. All because of a little sign on a wall.

Just as I aspire to use sound in order to enhance visitors’ perception of the sculpture, the installation itself intensified my sense of the meaning behind its constituent elements.

To Shape a Nation

Earlier this week, NPR broadcasted an illuminating story about an exhibit at the Library of Congress titled “Books That Shaped America.” For the exhibit, the LoC has gathered 88 books—ranging from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Dr. Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos—which in some way “encapsulated and reflected a moment of time in America that Americans understood and recognized in themselves.” Historians, curators, poets, scientists, and literary experts all took part in the culling and selecting of the titles, and during the segment it doesn’t take long for the host to bring on a book critic from the Washington Post to point out what books did not make it onto the final list.

In any case, a story like this immediately begs the question: “What about music?” One could argue that music has had as strong of an impact on this country and its people as books have had, and over the years there have been quite a few attempts at addressing that question. In 2000, for instance, NPR went through a similar process as the Library of Congress and put together an initial list of 300 works that they subsequently reduced down to the “100 most important American musical works of the 20th century.”

On that initial list of 300, the selected concert works were as follows:

1. Adagio for Strings (Barber)*

2. African-American Symphony (Still)

3. Amahl and the Night Visitors (Menotti)

4. Appalachian Spring (Copland)*

5. Ballet Mechanique (Antheil)

6. Drumming (Reich)*

7. Ebony Concerto (Stravinsky)

8. Einstein on the Beach (Glass)

9. Fanfare for the Common Man (Copland)

10. “4:33” (Cage)*

11. Grand Canyon Suite (Grofe)*

12. Hymn and Fuguing Tunes Series (Cowell)

13. In C (Riley)

14. The Incredible Flutist (Piston)

15. Knoxville: Summer of 1915 (Barber)

16. Moby Dick (Mennin)

17. Nixon in China (Adams)

18. Piano Sonata No. 2 “Concord Sonata” (Ives)

19. Rhapsody in Blue (Gershwin)*

20. String Quartet No. 3 (Carter)

21. Susannah(Floyd)

22. Symphony No. 1 (Zwilich)

23. Symphony No. 2 “Romantic” (Hansen)

24. Symphony No. 3 (Harris)

25. Symphony No. 3 (Riegger)

26. Symphony No. 3 (Schuman)

27. Symphony of Psalms (Stravinsky)*

28. Symphony of Rage and Remembrance (Corigliano)

* works that were selected for the 100 top works list

During the NPR segment I mentioned above, they took several calls to hear about how this or that book affected a particular person’s life, and it’s here where I think this exercise might be valuable and/or enlightening. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say that a very few of these pieces actually resonated with the majority of the country as a whole (Appalachian Spring is probably as close to a publicly recognizable national concert work as we have). However, I would think that at least a few of these works (and many others) were important in shaping the lives of individual composers and performers here in the U.S. today.

To take that one step further, the idea of discovering what works of American origin have become shared experiences between American composers that transcend generation, education, and environment is an interesting one. Yes, one could rightly open up such an exercise to works from outside the U.S., but, as with the Library of Congress’s exhibit, there is value in discovering what effect art has on the native population where it was created—especially in such a heterogeneous population such as ours. We in the arts have prided ourselves on being so open to influences from around the world that I’m afraid we haven’t taken enough time to look at how we are affected, with certain exceptions (various popular/vernacular genres, etc.), by home-grown influences.

When I speak of influences, there are many different ways that a musical work can influence a composer or performer. In my own career, I can distinctly remember listening to Michael Torke’s CD Javelin in 1996 and being very surprised by it, especially the chamber work Adjustable Wrench. I had primarily had experiences in jazz and I was living in Los Angeles becoming immersed in the film music scene, so my concept of what concert music was at that time was till pretty “crunchy.” After listening to the CD several times, I realized that all those angular, dissonant associations I had with concert music might not be the only option any more. Soon I came across other composers who were writing more diatonically—Lauridsen, Pärt, Gorecki—and while most of my music today has no relationship to any of those works or composers, discovering those works did ultimately help to convince me that I might want to try my hand at being a concert composer.

Below are two questions to readers—feel free to answer either one or both. I’m not looking to create a ranking or a “Best Of…”, but rather to begin to build a picture of which American works have been influential to composers and performers active today. Thanks in advance for taking part!

1. What American concert work or works have somehow influenced you personally, artistically, or otherwise?

2. What American concert work or works would you add to NPR’s list of music that you think has had an important impact on the country as a whole?

On The Job

I only attended three concerts this past week. Instead, during the other nights, I attempted to work on my own music—with varying degrees of success ranging from very productive to not productive at all. New York City has way too many distractions, and it’s hard to say “no” when people want to meet up and talk about music. That’s why my normally scheduled composing time, from 6:00-8:00 a.m., has been so effective. To date, no one has attempted to divert me from my own compositional work at that hour. I realize as I type this that I’m probably inviting some kind of intrusion before too long, but hopefully not. And truth be told, my usual regimen has often been more like 6:30 to 8:00 because when I wake up and immediately walk into my studio to turn on the computer, I inevitably check email before I do anything else; that’s a wormhole that usually kills at least half an hour. This morning, in a rare moment of willpower, I refused to check my email and as a result I pretty much worked out the final order of a sequence of 108 deceptive cadences that had been bothering me for days. (The reason I was fixated on this particular compositional scheme is, alas, a story for another time.)

I feel particularly good about my early morning strategy even though most of the rest of this month is more or less a wash. On Wednesday I head to Minneapolis for the 2012 Conference of Chorus America and the American Composers Forum’s concurrent “ChoralConnections” convening. Then the following week I’ll be in Greece for the 2012 General Assembly of the International Association of Music Information Centres. I’ve yet to figure out a way to eke out composing time when I’m on the road. Reading this, you might imagine that I’m somewhat frustrated that my composing time is so limited and circumscribed. But nothing could actually be further from the truth. Without the exposure to all the music I hear in concerts and on the recordings I acquire when I’m on the road, as well as the conversations about music I have with people wherever I happen to be, my creative fuel would be severely depleted.

Back in the mid-1980s I worked as a high school teacher of ESL (English as a Second Language). I had to wake up at 5:30 a.m. every morning to get to where I taught (Thomas Jefferson High School, which was deep in a rough Brooklyn neighborhood called East New York, more than an hour’s commute away from midtown Manhattan, where I then lived). But I finished work in the early afternoon and had the entire summer free to compose (something that seems very appealing as we approach the end of another school year). Yet I accomplished almost nothing compositionally during that time. While I credit the experience with giving me invaluable life lessons and transforming me from an impractical and somewhat arrogant teenager into a mature adult (at least in comparison with who I had been), teaching offered me very little in the way of musical nourishment. In fact, during those years I frequently considered abandoning writing music altogether since it seemed like such an effete activity given all the harsh realities I came to learn about through my exposure to the lives of recent immigrants.

Of course, the creation of new work, as well as how we respond to it, is inevitably influenced by everything that goes on around us. This is something I finally understood when I went to grad school and immersed myself in the study of ethnomusicology, which is what I did immediately after deciding not to continue my career as a high school teacher. I also realize now that I probably never would have pursued the study of music of different cultures had I not personally interacted with people from other parts of the world on a daily basis for several years. The music I now write, as well as the rest of the activities I do that divert me from composing, are by-products of that ethnomusicological immersion and, the more I think about it, the years I spent teaching. So for me, there is ultimately no conflict between writing music and either listening to or advocating for the music of others; in fact, in my world view, these activities are thoroughly symbiotic. That said, twenty-four hours is probably not the ideal length for my day, but that’s something I have no power to change.

Sound Ideas: Prompt #4

Write a direct melody.

Write the most directly communicative melody that you can. Don’t worry about it being cheesy. Don’t worry about it being obvious. It will be. Or it won’t be. It doesn’t matter. Worry about it being very clear. Make it about a direct emotion.

Record it or write it down.

Now it’s your turn: write, record, or otherwise draft your response using any method that suits your style and skills, then share it in comments. You can embed a SoundCloud player, a YouTube video, a link to a score file—whatever works. Here at NewMusicBox, we talk about music a lot. This project is our way of shifting focus and actually making some music, too. We can’t wait to hear what everyone creates.—MS

Sxip Shirey

Sxip Shirey is a composer and performer who lives in New York City. His music is beautiful, surprising, deep and will twist your head right around. Ecstatic melody, unimaginable sounds, and deep sexy beats played using Industrial Flutes, Bullhorn Harmonicas, Regurgitated Music Box, Triple Extended Pennywhistls, Miniature Hand Bell Choir, Obnoxiophone, Glass Bowls With Red Marbles, human beat box, and a clutch of curious objects.