Tag: listening paradigms

Concerts in the Park and Modes of Listening to New Music

An outdoor audience listening to Andy Akiho performing on steel pans along with double bass, harp, piano, mallet percussion, and drums in Bryant Park (Photo by Ryan Muir, courtesy Bryant Park Corporation)

[Ed. Note: Through the summer, composer/arranger/saxophonist Patrick Zimmerli has curated a series of free outdoor concerts in New York City’s Bryant Park. “Breaking Boundaries,” the final concert of the 2016 series which takes place on Friday, August 26, 2016, from 5 to 10 p.m., will feature cellist Inbal Segev, harpist Bridget Kibbey with violinist Kristen Lee and percussionist John Hadfield, the Kenari Saxophone Quartet, the Dan Tepfer Trio with SEVEN)SUNS, and Zimmerli’s own quartet. We asked Zimmerli to share his thoughts on why outdoor concerts are the ideal entry point for people curious about adventurous music.–FJO]

As a composer, I’ve had occasion to think a lot about how to listen to all kinds of music. I’ve pondered ways of hearing Bach fugues and Mozart sonatas and Schoenberg rows and Babbitt superarrays. As a teenager, I also transcribed lots of jazz solos— Bird, Coltrane, Miles, et al.— straining to hear the most fleeting nuances in their improvisations.

I taught ear training and musicianship courses at Columbia University for several years, watching students whose natural aural abilities—as well as their means of taking in and understanding organized sound—were about as singular as their fingerprints. And I’ve seen and heard audiences in concert halls of every shape and size react to all kinds of music, familiar and unfamiliar. Through all this experience, I’ve developed a sensitivity to the problems of listening to music in the 21st century.


Problems of Listening

Some problems of listening to contemporary music were poignantly outlined by Maia Jasper White in her soulful piece on NewMusicBox. Maia touched on the central problem of simultaneously satisfying people with wildly disparate levels of listening experience.

This is something that many composers really don’t sufficiently take into account. The divide between the new music connoisseur and the average person is larger than ever, and the vast majority of people just have no context or experience to be able to deal with music that’s on the knife-edge of contemporary composition. (I kid you not—there are music lovers out there who are so far from the fine distinctions in which we traffic as to not know what a piano is!) While those listeners may seem so far from our target audience as to be irrelevant—especially in this world of narrowcasting—it’s worth taking stock of the great distance contemporary music has travelled from the mainstream.

The split began gradually, as what we now think of as “classical” music grew away from its traditional base, took on the weight of a “tradition,” and ultimately became an academic discipline. Sonatas, rondos, and scherzos, originally organic outgrowths of popular dances, are now forms to be learned in school. With classical music’s increasing departure from its roots in popular culture came modernism. Twentieth-century composers, building on the past, wanted to transcend their predecessors, they wanted their increasingly complex notes and sounds to be heard and absorbed, their winding narratives taken in and comprehended in their entirety. In their search for purity, they wanted their pieces subjected to contemplation rather than applause—to the point that the practice was even entirely banned in Arnold Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances.

A similar trajectory has been followed in jazz, where what was once a dance/entertainment genre has ascended to the realms of high art. Simple forms like the rhythm changes and blues have come to be played in such an abstract way that even listeners with a very sophisticated understanding of classical music often have no idea of their underlying repetitive structures.  At the same time places like the Village Vanguard, once smoke-filled venues where music was played over a constant thrum of background chatter, have become churchlike spaces, where listeners take in the music in reverent silence.

More recently there’s been a backlash against the imposed silence of the art-listening experience. With the opening of spaces such as (Le) Poisson Rouge nearly a decade ago, venues began to be created where classical music could be re-positioned and re-connected to its past in an informal setting, where people could applaud freely and even chat, much as at a vintage jazz concert (though at the performances I’ve been at, they mostly don’t).

Instead of one view prevailing or holding sway, we now have a situation where a small number of incredibly knowledgeable experts coexist with a sprawling field of listeners whose level of commitment and knowledge is in inverse proportion to their numbers. How on earth can all these people be satisfied simultaneously?

Endsley and tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel during an outdoor concert in Bryant Park

Trumpeter Shane Endsley (left) and tenor saxophonist Ben Wendel (right) of the Ben Wendel Group during their performance at Bryant Park on June 8, 2015 (Photo courtesy Bryant Park Corporation.)

An Outdoor Solution

These thoughts were occasioned by the first concert I curated for New York’s Bryant Park this summer, as part of the IN/TERSECT festival. The idea for the series is to bring together new music from the jazz and classical domains. Each concert in the festival features five ensembles, either jazz or classical based or related, each playing new music, including for each evening one ensemble that had recently been granted a Chamber Music America New Works grant in either the jazz or classical categories.

I was quite enthusiastic when Ethan Lercher, the visionary behind IN/TERSECT, contacted me to curate the series, as I’d always loved Bryant Park. It’s so centrally located in Manhattan that I felt the concerts couldn’t help but attract attention, and indeed they have been exceptionally well-attended for new music events, drawing crowds of up to 2500.

The park is directly behind the New York Public Library, between 5th and 6th avenues and 40th and 42nd streets, and the stage faces a large lawn. There are chairs set up on the part of the lawn nearest the music, and the rest is free for blankets or for people just to lie down or play. The greenery, while manicured, manages to be totally welcoming—the low trees surrounding the lawn give the feeling of shelter from the urban streets. And the park is encircled by the most awe-inspiring urban architecture—look to the west and you see such storied 21st-century skyscrapers as the Bank of America building and the newly completed 7 Bryant Park, with its fabulous conical cutouts; the Grace building to the north, with its seductive outward curve, is a late-20th century precursor; to the south is the magnificent Radiator Building, designed by Raymond Hood, futurist architect of the ‘20s and ‘30s; and of course the New York Public Library, designed and completed over the first decade of the 20th century, sits in Beaux-Arts grandeur to the east. The buildings form a veritable compendium of aesthetic ideas of the last century, and thus provide an interesting context for hearing new music. It’s certainly an auspicious mélange for a festival that looks to bridge styles.

A Rich Sonic Experience

The concerts are necessarily amplified, which might dampen the enjoyment of those who think of classical music performances as one of life’s last pleasures to be completely unmediated by electronics. But Bryant Park has taken great pains—and has incurred great expense—to ensure a natural, rich sound in all areas of the park. They’ve invested in a very good mixing board, new speakers, and other equipment, and rent the best quality microphones available.

In addition, they took the step of hiring the legendary Tom Lazarus as an audio consultant for all three evenings. Tom is a recording engineer who worked for Sony Classical in its heyday, but he also has a sophisticated knowledge and understanding of jazz. Tom’s fantastic intuitive sense for sound, combined with a very high standard, has been hugely helpful in ensuring that everyone from the very front row to the back of the park had a completely naturalistic listening experience, with a full, well-blended sound.

In the second concert, for example, The Westerlies, an outstanding young brass quartet of two trumpets and two trombones that plays original music as well as covers of composers like Ives and Machaut, played with a gorgeous, velvety sound; their extremely nuanced, detailed performance came through the speakers immaculately. Even the notoriously-difficult-to-mic string quartet sounded very natural—the Argus Quartet’s passionately committed performance of Eric Guinivan’s String Quartet, and their exquisite rendition of Beethoven’s Op. 59 No. 2, hit the public’s ears with a warm, full sonority.


Varieties of Listening Experience

I wanted to emphasize the quality of sound at IN/TERSECT to make the larger point that, for sophisticated listeners, the intense, focused concert experience remains available. True, there is ambient noise from the surrounding streets, but the amplification pretty well offsets that. On the first evening, we featured violist Andy Lin (of Amphion Quartet fame) and his sister Kelly, who played a somewhat intricate piece by Korean composer Alvin Tam; its every detail was available for connoisseurs to ingest.

On the other hand, you could just pass by and take in a few notes, listen from afar on the lawn, chat with a friend or wander off if you were getting bored or there was a part you disliked. With most new music concerts at destination venues, it’s very unusual to be able to dip your little toe in like this.

Andy Akiho performing on steel pans along with harp and double bass during the June 10, 2016 IN/TERSECT concert in Bryant Park

Andy Akiho and The Foundry performing during the June 10, 2016 IN/TERSECT concert in Bryant Park. Photo by Ryan Muir (courtesy Bryant Park Corporation).

Modes of Listening

New music has been as much about challenging modes of listening and perception as anything else. Schoenberg created his Society for Private Musical Performances out of a dissatisfaction with the traditional ways that audiences approached music. Schoenberg had a much higher standard of listening—in Style and Idea he disdains those who cannot easily take in both a main and subordinate theme simultaneously, and famously derides composers only familiar with half of Brahms’s complete output. Schoenberg’s concerts were places where a small but highly cultured, knowledgeable, and devout audience could gather and bring a tremendous, hitherto-unheard-of level of focus and intensity of listening to the concert experience.

That focus and intensity has gradually been institutionalized within classical and new music culture. Today there are any number of new music concerts where small audiences go to inspect music in great detail (based on an abundance of prior knowledge) that to the uninitiated would carry little meaning. And indeed, in so lifting the standards of listening, Schoenberg and his descendants have left huge swaths of humanity entirely behind.

What was most wonderful to me about the park experience was that all modes of listening were available simultaneously. Sure, you could sit in the front row and scrutinize Sandbox Percussion’s performance of Johnny Allen’s Sonata, with its multiple interpretive modes; you could revel to the minute details of Jonathan Finlayson’s trumpet stylings or hang on every note of Chris Potter’s soloistic flights.

But at the same time there was no pressure to do any of the above. The ambient noise from the surrounding city streets is at a level that makes chatting with a neighbor not feel out of place in the back rows of the seating area, and there are many people who are spread out on blankets on the lawn, or even playing frisbee, as the music washes over them.

I guess Brian Eno beat me to this observation by a couple of decades, but—as someone who’s spent so much time on focused listening—I still believe there’s something really amazing about background music. Indeed—there’s something amazing about new music as background music. One of the most memorable moments during the first concert came for me when I took a full loop around the exterior of the park during the performance. Sandbox Percussion was playing a lovely piece by David Crowell, a very interesting young composer hailing from Alaska. As I was walking through the park, I thrilled to the sound—as did many seated on the lawn—of Crowell’s rhythms pinging serenely off of the surrounding buildings in stereophonic splendor. The content of the music was interesting but it almost didn’t matter; it was the simple fact of mallet instruments playing in concerted rhythm—mixing into and civilizing the chaotic sounds of the city—that was so sublime. The music that we often so minutely scrutinize, that we routinely talk about at levels of detail elusive to the everyperson: can it be that it all boils down to “Ahh, nice mallets pinging into the night air”?

I guess the answer to that is, “It depends.” It depends on who you are. It depends on your level of musical experience, on what you bring to the occasion. It depends on what you expect, what you want, what you think music could or should be. And, unlike almost any new music concert I’ve attended, the IN/TERSECT festival offered a rewarding experience for people with an amazing variety of those levels, those expectations, those desires.

Patrick Zimmerli

Patrick Zimmerli (photo by Maxime de Bollivier)

Patrick Zimmerli is a New York and Paris-based composer and musician. He has written and performed numerous works for jazz and classical musicians, among them jazz saxophonist Joshua Redman, the Escher String Quartet, jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, the Paris Percussion Group, and Bralizian vocalst Luciana Souza.

Music is the Gateway Drug to Listening


So many books, so little time…

Last week The Guardian published a passionate and well-reasoned essay about the importance of libraries by British novelist Neil Gaiman (whom music fans may recognize as the husband of American singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer). I was particularly struck by this passage:

Fiction … is a gateway drug to reading. The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end … that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything. And reading is key. There were noises made briefly, a few years ago, about the idea that we were living in a post-literate world, in which the ability to make sense out of written words was somehow redundant, but those days are gone: words are more important than they ever were: we navigate the world with words, and as the world slips onto the web, we need to follow, to communicate and to comprehend what we are reading. People who cannot understand each other cannot exchange ideas, cannot communicate, and translation programs only go so far.

With some minor adjustments, Gaiman’s persuasive advocacy of prose fiction can be adapted into an argument for focused listening to music. Just as reading novels or short stories will make you fall in love with written language and ultimately enable you to more effectively communicate as well as comprehend the world around you, a similarly immersive experience with music (any kind of music) will make you fall in love with listening and ultimately enable you to more effectively pay attention to others.
And yet there seem to be so many negative claims these days about focused listening. That it is culturally specific and genre specific (to “Western classical music”). That it is an activity that developed late in human history (the Enlightenment era) and is now something of an anachronism. And, perhaps the most pernicious, that it is not the ideal way to experience music of any kind. This past weekend, as part of the 2013 installment of the Battle of Ideas at London’s Barbican Centre, there was a session that addressed many of these questions head on entitled “Listening to Music: A Public or Private Activity?” I wish I could have been there. Writing in advance about it for The Telegraph, Ivan Hewitt (one of the session’s panelists who made waves on this side of the Atlantic a few weeks ago with his take on the Minnesota Orchestra stalemate) offered a tantalizing preview of some of his talking points:

We can all agree that music is dishonoured if we let it dribble away in the background, as an accompaniment to chatting over a skinny frappucino or answering emails. But does it follow that to honour music as it deserves, we have to listen closely to it? There are many ways to relate to music, after all, and it may be that we’re moving into a period where “taking music seriously” means something else entirely. … [A]ll of us, young and old alike, find it harder to create the calm mental space needed to focus on a developing musical argument.

I would argue that the fact that it has become harder to focus in recent years makes the act of focused listening all the more necessary. In the political sphere, constructive arguments between opposing viewpoints have now devolved into mutually exclusive echo chambers that are hermetically sealed off from one another. We seem to be losing our ability to listen to one another, to the peril of the social contract that is necessary for a functional society. Listening to music could help.

Thoughts of Mainstream

Earlier in the week I was sitting in a restaurant in Brooklyn Heights between rehearsals for tonight’s Cynthia Hilts’s Lyric Fury performance at the Firehouse Space and tomorrow’s sold-out Evening In Blue concert at the Vanderveer Park United Methodist Church, researching an error I made in my recent post on Albert Murray, and was surprised to hear an oboe concerto while looking over the menu. Usually, when I’m dining out, I hear almost anything but classical music being played. I also tend to either filter out the music that I know I’ve heard before or listen to what I think I haven’t. (Of course, this is the paradigm when dining alone; I always give my dining companions my complete and undivided attention!) Since I’d never heard this work before, I paid it full heed and found that it caught my ear in a special way, conjuring sensations from childhood, a time when I believed that anything played by an orchestra was important music that should be listened to with reverence. But then I heard an announcer’s voice (I think the program originally aired last month on the Southern California radio station, KUSC) disclose that the next piece following that concerto (which turned out to be Handel’s No. 1 in Bb, HWV 301) would be Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Greensleeves. I snapped back to the present.

This brief foray into a past mindset prompted me to think about parallels between musical genre, class distinction, and geographical place (as well as an ever-nagging one on how a word that sounds like “rafe” should be properly spelt), when I heard a little boy’s voice inquiring as to why the music no longer sounded like the melody he knew. A voice with a heavy British accent that might have been his mother’s answered, “It’s a fantasia.” Like Kilgore Trout, I caromed back to when my mother introduced me to the world of music with a recording of Peter and the Wolf (Columbia Masterworks ML 5593, 1961) that, with its Jonah-and-the-Whale oboe part, also introduced me to what might be my first experience of cognitive dissonance and the questions that it inspired: How could Peter, ostensibly the narrative’s hero, save the wolf from its karmatic conclusion (death by hunter’s gun shot) while the tale’s victim (a duck, portrayed by the oboe) be left crying to be freed from the canine’s craw? It just didn’t make sense. It also gave me a habit of questioning the veracity of fairy tales.

Jazz became part of my universe of important music much later, after I had begun playing music professionally. As I learned more about the ubiquitous use of fairy tales in our day-to-day lives, my conditions for “importance” evolved to include mundane issues like global warming and socio-economic justice, which have influenced my concept of “important music.” The history of socio-economic posturing adopted by various proponents and detractors of jazz is also a lens that can be used to view the development of America’s social conscience. The struggle of jazz artists to be recognized for their artistic merit is worth examination, especially those who preferred not to see their music labeled “jazz” (which includes iconoclasts like Duke Ellington, Max Roach, and Charles Mingus). My own sense is that the argument has always boiled down to two issues: one’s skin color and one’s economic status. The deeper one looks, the more this seems true. But, paradoxically, popular music has been generally understood to be artistically inferior to “creative” music, even though it makes much more money for the Great American Culture Machine. Over the course of its history, jazz moved from novelty, to popular, to “creative.” One positive aspect of this is that mainstream media is looking more closely at jazz, its proponents, and its artists, and offers a more enlightening view of them to some of its readers. I’d like to share an example with the readers of NewMusicBox.


Anyone who knows anything at all about jazz will know the name of Thelonious Monk, one of America’s most distinctive and iconic pianists and composers. He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1964 and a jazz archive and competition also bear his name. One of the first recordings of Monk I was exposed to was the 1963 release, Big Band and Quartet In Concert (Columbia CL 2164 and CS 8964). The bassist on this recording was Butch Warren, a native of Washington, D.C., who was a house bassist for Blue Note Records during the 1960s.

When I began to seriously study jazz in 1973, I was told to check out certain recordings. One of them, Joe Henderson’s Page One included two now jazz classics, “Blue Bossa” and “Recordame.” Another, Takin’ Off was the first album recorded by pianist Herbie Hancock and contained the hit song, “Watermelon Man.” Warren was the bassist on these as well. I can’t remember every recording I listened to that included Butch Warren, but there were a lot. Kenny Dorham’s Una Mas, Donald Byrd’s A New Perspective with Duke Pearson’s “Christo Redentor,” and Sonny Clark’s Leapin’ and Lopin’ were just some. But after 1967, Warren disappeared from the New York scene he’d been a part of since 1958. His name wasn’t on any of the newer recordings I was using to construct my rubric of jazz bass playing and I assumed he had stopped playing or passed away.
I saw his name again in an email from Jazzinstitut Darmstadt’s “Jazz News”. A link to
an article in The Washington Post revealed that he had been in and out of hospitals and institutions in Washington and that, at age 72, he is succumbing to lung cancer. Although I’ve never met him, Butch Warren’s playing had a significant influence on my own playing and on that of many of my colleagues as well. I can’t begin to count how many times I’ve played “Watermelon Man,” a song that demands knowledge of the original recording and all of its components, especially the deceptively simple bass part. Herbie Hancock and Blue Note Records owes much of its fortune to that single tune. It defined a slew of dance-oriented material, such as Lee Morgan’s “The Sidewinder” and “Rumproller” and nearly all of the top-selling releases of Creed Taylor’s label, CTI.

Butch's Blues

Butch Warren’s most recent album, Butch’s Blues (2012)

In a very real sense, the ground laid by Butch Warren has defined a great part of American music. I find I must question the veracity of the fairy tale that the Great American Culture Machine recites around music like “Watermelon Man.” For reasons that, it can be argued, directly stem from the way America generally treats its citizens around issues of social standing and skin color, Warren has had a more difficult time of it than can be conscientiously regarded as fair, so it’s really a part of the fairy tale. Warren’s own description of possibly hallucinating racists who follow him after work and threaten him for appearing “too comfortable…with…white female dancers” is telling of how paranoia can be, for some, justifiably rooted in their American experience. That’s the kind of injustice that jazz is supposed to be about ending. It’s good to see mainstream media taking up the cause.
There is also a very nice video presentation about
Butch Warren on The Washington Post website:

More clips of Warren’s playing can be seen on

Isolating the Senses

I completely concur with Alexandra Gardner’s assessment in her most recent post that “selfless engagement can make the individual an even better composer.” However, I was initially troubled by her albeit correct observation that when composing for film “the music holding its own is never the main goal of a score; really the goal is to, well, vanish. To be an invisible cloak that makes the entire experience work.”

I know I’m not the target audience for most motion pictures, since for me it’s always about the music to the point that I will sometimes pay such close attention to what’s going on in a film score that it impinges on my ability to stay engaged with the narrative. This probably explains why I appreciate the films of someone like John Carpenter, even though I tend to really dislike horror films, since I really like the music in his films (which he actually writes himself). This means I can focus on the music and ignore the gore much of the time. (Although, true confession time, I loved his film They Live when it first was released in 1988, and perhaps love it even more so now in an era where its bizarre sci-fi take on 1% vs. 99% seems strangely prescient.) This might also explain why I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve been to see a film in a movie theatre in the last decade, preferring to watch and keep DVDs of any film of interest. This enables me to watch them as many times as I need to in order to let the music take me where it inevitably will and still eventually come to appreciate other significant things, such as the screenplay, acting, cinematography, etc.

Despite all that, I would be duplicitous if I claimed that I could listen without the intrusion of other senses. The way I sometimes listen to music in a film—even if it results in my foregrounding it more than I should—is still very influenced by whatever it is I am seeing on the screen. How could it not be? I was extremely mindful of this last Thursday night when I attended the New York re-premiere of the 1922 Ernest Lubitsch film Das Weib des Pharao (which translates as “The Wife of Pharaoh” although its official English-language title is, “The Loves of Pharaoh,” rather confusingly since in the film the Pharaoh Amenes has but one infatuation). Although Lubitsch’s ancient Egyptian epic had been lost until it was reconstructed this past year from various fragmentary prints (portions of the film are still missing), the music that was originally composed for it—by German composer Eduard Künneke, survived intact. However, for the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s screening, the original score was replaced with a brand new one by Joseph C. Phillips Jr. written for his ensemble Numinous which he conducted live.

Though I was thoroughly engrossed in Lubitsch’s mise-en-scène, I also found Phillips’s score to be totally riveting. Curious about how certain timbral combinations were being made (specifically some including harp), I would furtively steal my eyes away from the film screen to look at the musicians every now and then. (Good thing most motion pictures don’t feature live soundtracks or I’d never know what was going on story-wise in movies.)

Loves of Pharoah

One of the most effective moments in The Loves of Pharaoh is when a guard spots Theonis and Ramphis (the heroine and hero in the film) trespassing in Pharoah Amenes’s newly-built treasury (for which the punishment is death). In Joseph C. Phillips’s new score for the film, the guard’s trumpet call is matched by an equally forceful trumpet blare. (Photo by Ed Lefkowicz, courtesy Lisa Thomas and Sandy Sawotka, Brooklyn Academy of Music)

Optical components, of course, are part of any auditory experience, whether they are conceptually part of the design or not. Even when we close our eyes to listen to music using headphones, we are determining a visual frame for the listening experience. For most people, closing their eyes is a way to better foreground music since visual stimuli tend to dominate our sensory perceptions. But, just as there is no such thing as a silent space, there is also no such thing as an invisible one.

Libby Larsen: Communicating Through Music

[Ed. note: This conversation between composer and American Composers Forum co-founder Libby Larsen and Richard Kessler, then the Executive Director of the American Music Center, was originally published on the American Music Center’s website on February 1, 1999. It was the fifth in a series of interviews entitled “Music In The First Person” that was published in the year before the launch of NewMusicBox on May 1, 1999. “In The First Person” served as the model for one of the primary components of NewMusicBox which still continues on the site as “Cover.”]

1. A Musical Upbringing

RICHARD KESSLER: What led you to become a composer?

LIBBY LARSEN: A long and deep-seeded desire to communicate through sound. It’s my own sense of (…I don’t want this to sound corny…) just being alive. That’s really what led me to it. The path that led me was a series of lucky self-discoveries, actually, because no one ever encouraged me to be a composer (which is not unusual for composers). Most composers find themselves on their paths. But I’ve always had great desires to just tell everybody what I see and what I feel, and what’s going on. To do that through music seemed to me the most elegant and most deeply communicative way.

I had a very typical Midwestern kid upbringing in terms of music, which means playing an instrument (in my case, piano) and singing in a choir. When I was young, it seemed that all Midwestern kids sang in choirs! It’s part of this region’s Scandinavian heritage. I also was very lucky in that I learned to read and write music in first grade as did everybody in my grade school. I went to a Catholic grade school before the Vatican II Council, and we all learned to read and write so that we could sing Gregorian chant for daily services.

It didn’t really occur to me that not everybody in the world could read and write music for quite some time. Composing for me was very natural, as natural as drawing pictures and writing essays. It was natural for every kid in our school . . . Isn’t that interesting?

I had a natural interest in rhythm. When I began to hear rhythms and words that caught my attention, I started writing them down and manipulating them on paper. I had no thought about writing love songs. Some of the more typical paths to composition come through songwriting, through piano playing, or being in a garage band. Mine really came through an interest in words and rhythm and the ability to notate those. It developed really from age 7-on. But it never occurred to me that to be a composer had a definition, or a root, or a path, or a profession until college, when I began to study music theory and just found true beauty in theory. And then the connection was made. I became aware of many, many, ways of constructing pieces to express emotion and energy. And once that happened for me, I knew I was a composer.

RK: So this predisposition towards rhythm was there, right from the very beginning.

LL: From the very beginning, and I think it has to do with the fact that I learned Gregorian Chant which is free of meter. The rhythm has everything to with the flow of the Chant, as it exists in the space in which it is being performed. So I had a very solid grounding in timeless flow — does that make sense?

RK: Sure — without bar lines.

LL: Yes. At the same time, when I was 7, I started taking piano. I became really fascinated with real theoretical questions derived from Western notation: How does time function in a finite section called a measure and given a meter? So I became fascinated with rhythm through a natural grounding in Chant.

RK: So, in some sense, the freedom was the first thing that you became immersed in and then the rigor emerged as you started studying the piano. Does that make sense?

LL: That’s perfect, thank you!

2. Being a Good Citizen for Music

RK: I’d like to move on to what we’re calling “The Good Citizen” question. Among composers, you are considered to be a good citizen, and that’s something that we’re very interested in at The American Music Center. The Center was founded by six composers who were good citizens. In order to create a community for new American music, they formed the Center in 1939. You’ve also served on a number of Boards of musical organizations and co-founded the Minnesota Composers Forum (now the American Composers Forum). At this time, with some years to look back on (and certainly to look forward to), how do you see your role as a composer within a larger community?

LL: It hasn’t changed very much since the early 1970s. I was puzzled then because I knew that the art form I was pursuing was monastic and was challenged by its own need for creative solitude. After all, notation as we know it developed in the monasteries. The academic university system is a natural evolution of the monasteries.

I was puzzled that a composer like myself was actually faced with a choice in the 1970s… a choice of language… musical language. In fact, a trained composer can chose any language she or he likes. It’s not an instinctual thing. While instincts inform voice, you choose to write 12-tone, or aleatoric, or like Wagner, etc. What bothered me is that the choice of language also seemed to determine a choice of place in community and society. A rigorous academic language carries incredible and profound beauty in its mechanics. But choosing it also means a serious challenge in reaching a person who’s naturally curious about music but has no technical training to understand the language. I said to myself, “Well, now, that is an investigation worth spending your life on.” Composers who are so well trained and have such a deep desire to communicate through writing music ought to be able to communicate in many different venues. If they have a voice and a passion and a desire, they ought to be able to find venues ranging from the most sophisticated professional orchestra to the community choir in the smallest of communities. All those venues are available, and yet there seems to be a definite artificial choice that has been struck here.

I decided that part of the challenge was that we composers ourselves aren’t very skilled in telling people how beautiful the art form is. The actual process of composing is a different way of thinking than many other professions. I felt that composers needed to articulate our art form in a way that we weren’t addressing. It seemed to me that the way to do this was to just get out and walk around where people were producing music, to be on boards of directors of organizations that produce concerts. They seem to be having real trouble producing the music of living composers. The only way to solve the problem is to go to the root of the problem and learn what the thinking is so that we can articulate the value of the composer in the culture.

RK: Then you’re not just making a comment from the outside, you’re a part of it. This is a particularly interesting discussion to me because we’re trying to position the Center as a place to facilitate and provoke discussion, a place that examines the perceptions and misconceptions of this art form. That’s why we’re heading towards an Internet magazine; that’s what we hope to do with it. We even (in some ways) view it as a guerrilla action.

LL: Richard, I like your thinking.

RK: We’ll see how it goes, we have a long way to go before we get there, but when I hear you speak about this, I can say I’m 100% with you. In part, this is what I hope to see the American Music Center become. It’s really the promotion or advocacy part, and then there’s a support part that’s about grants and helping people with direct services and workshops.

LL: Right — the tools create an advocacy structure and help composers to write their best music.

3. Radio and the Music Business

RK: How has the music business changed? You, I know, started in the early 70s?

LL: Yes. It’s changed tremendously, I think. In public concerts (concerts produced outside the university system), I have witnessed the growth of the concert industry from 1960 to the present. It’s an interesting matrix of concert production, the recording industry, public radio, and music conservatory educational approaches. I think it’s a natural evolution and an interesting challenge for composers. In 1960, the concert industry was not a year-round business that it is now. Certain ways of doing business, certain ways of thinking about concerts, and certain ways of thinking about marketing concerts have developed in the last 30 years and have, I think, become overly concerned with commercial marketing in an effort to apply commercial marketing techniques to a non-commercial endeavor.

The result of this kind of thinking and its aftermath are things like the Denver Project. Have you heard about it? The Denver Project was a marketing research effort directed by WCFR-FM, a classical radio station in Denver, Colorado, which was trying to determine the listening habits and preferences of its perceived market. Using typical commercial market research methods, they determined that the general population prefers classical music to be light and buoyant and played in the background as an accompaniment to everyday life activities. Rather than broadcasting an entire piece of music, such as a symphony, the Report suggested that audiences prefer pieces to be broken up into smaller doses. It went further to recommend what kinds of music should be played at what hours of the day, and made recommendations about the nature of dissonance in music. They “discovered” that people don’t want dissonance before 9 o’clock in the morning and that people don’t like to listen to the singing voice broadcast over the radio.

All this is based on a fundamental shift in public radio’s perception of how its listeners actually listen to music. Many radio stations throughout the country have adopted some of the findings of the Denver Project in various configurations. Have you noticed your radio station changing in the last ten years? They’re no longer broadcasting full symphonies… There is a new perception of audience preference which developed without in-depth psychological research and resulted in a new programming strategy called “modal music.”

RK: Three-minute pieces…?

LL: And single movements…

It’s a direct outgrowth of this commercial marketing research venture. All based on the belief that public radio wants a mass audience. Why? To sell ads? They’re not selling things. They’re getting grants and what have you. In recent years, the classical music industry became convinced that counting the number of people receiving their product (…they call it product now…) is a way of measuring success. And when this happens, it entirely changes the role of the composer in the concert community.

This kind of thinking has permeated the non-profit concert world. We now use marketing techniques to support salaries based on for-profit values at non-profit organizations.

RK: I was wondering, by any chance, if you’re familiar with Frank Oteri’s speech at the public radio conference last year where he got up and talked about the need and success of programming new music. He even had a list — The Century List of pieces that could be played — new music that could be played on the radio of varying lengths.

Frank is the Editor and Publisher of our new magazine.

LL: Oh fabulous!

RK: You’ve really been taking a look, focusing on a particular element (of how the music’s changed) and it’s the pressures of mass audiences, commercialization…

LL: Right, and the confusion of marketplace with community, which is a very serious, and I think very contemporary, issue. As more and more organizations seek to find community and define community, there is a temptation to confuse community with marketplace. I’m quite concerned at the moment about the National Endowment for the Arts. Not for the usual reasons, but I’m concerned that in fact the issue of confusing marketplace with community is going to be central very soon.

If success is measured in quantitative terms, it may happen that the Endowment and attendant foundations and some of the organizations begin to talk about artistic and commercial partnerships as a way of reaching community. This can be interesting, but it’s also very dangerous. If, let’s say, the New York Philharmonic puts in a grant to the NEA to become the orchestra for six Paramount films, that’s a commercial venture which can be viewed as an artistic venture for the Philharmonic. The New York Philharmonic would not consider this venture central to its mission, but it could confuse the monetary and quantitative success with its own artistic goals. Do you see what I’m saying?

RK: Absolutely, and the implications of it. If organizations continue to have more non-musician types in influential positions who are heading towards nothing but bottom-line financial issues, it begins to change the direction, the goal, the sort of prime reason that the orchestra has existed for 150 some-odd years.

LL: Yes, that’s true, and I think that the prime directive for many arts organizations is very subtly in jeopardy right now because of exactly what you said. If the central definition of success for the people running the organizations is quantifiable and statistical more than it is conceptual and qualitative…if that balance is tipped too far towards short-term profit strategies, then artists will probably cease to work in those organizations, and a whole new era will dawn. It will be the next thing, whatever it is.

4. How to Measure Success

RK: And we’ve already seen groups of artists who have left those arenas. Steve Reich isn’t writing for orchestra. There are all sorts of people who have absolutely left. One thing I think is particularly interesting about this conversation is how to measure success. If you are measuring success, that means that you’re also measuring failure or different levels of success. It also has great implications on the grand psyche of this field.

LL: You’re right, Richard.

RK: If this is being used as any kind of measure of success, then it means that people in some ways are viewing themselves as failures or the field as a failure. What does it mean to create a piece of music if it’s not commercially successful?

LL: Exactly, and do you feel that (back to this question of language), the language has changed quite a bit since the 1970s, even again, but most of the rhetoric being written about what composers are working on today is in relation to commercial success? Composers are increasingly faced with the issue of commercial success. Which is of course an oxymoron in the non-profit world.

RK: Absolutely! Without a doubt.

LL: If we don’t compose pieces of music that fit right into the format of orchestras or opera companies, where the most successful operas are masterpieces of 19th century convention (production convention), then are we failures as artists? Right now, arts organizations are telling us, in fact, we are.

RK: Well, you can imagine how prime this is to the Center, and how key this is to the Center. This has been an issue of the Center that concerns all kinds of composers, a Center that has a library where there are pieces that haven’t been performed, where people are regularly depositing their scores. What validates whether or not they’re composers? These are tremendous issues in terms of the history of new American music.

LL: And in fact that may be the central issue to the America Music Center: the whole question of whether or not a piece of music is successful by its public deliverance; or whether or not the compositional process constitutes the success of the piece. And then, what value is musical process alone in the culture? The American Music Center has always been a place where anybody who declares “I am a composer” feels an amount of success if a score can be received for the library.

RK: But this particular discussion somehow has to be broadened. It has to include more people. It is this issue that is dogging the everyday composer. It’s this issue that’s dogging the people who are wondering how to measure success, and it’s rarely spoken about, in fact.

LL: No, but maybe this is a dialogue we should really try to foster. It hurts a little everyday when you think the music you’re writing has no meaning, or is not successful. It hurts a little everyday. And too many months of hurting a little everyday, and too many years is very unhealthy personally, for the art form, and for the culture.

RK: I think people certainly have to look inside and think about the reasons they compose. Composers also have to work at getting people to hear their music and networking to find people who will be interesting in presenting their work.

LL: Yes, right, I agree.

5. Women in Music

RK: I want to get onto another very big question. Basically, if you look at the statistics concerning performance of concert music, the statistics clearly prove that there are remarkably fewer performances of works by women composers than men. It’s staggering, the numbers, and it’s been this way for decades.

LL: Which set of concert statistics are you looking at?

RK: Take a look at the data put out in the last five or ten years by the American Symphony Orchestra League. I believe also, some things you see about chamber music. Take a look at catalogs. Take a look at our membership. You’ll see that there are more men than women. It used to be this way in many fields. But you’re seeing some remarkable changes in rock. You’re seeing remarkable changes in country music. I know many talented young-to-mid career women composers, but we’re still looking at a predominant number of performances coming from male composers. You’re probably still looking at a predominant number of teaching positions held by men. What do you think of all this? To what do you attribute this imbalance, and do you perceive any changes taking place for women concert composers?

LL: The statistics that I’ve studied show the same thing you described. When people ask the question — “How is it for women composers?” — you’ll hear many people saying, “Oh, it’s hardly a question anymore. Things have gotten so good for women composers; there’s a lot of representation for women composers.” And in fact, the statistics don’t bear that out at all. I accept an average of four residencies in colleges every year. I’ve noticed over the past twelve years that there is a definite pattern. In the graduate schools, you have a handful of graduate composers, maybe one or two are women, and maybe ten or twelve are men. The questions that I hear from women composers are quite different than the questions I get from men. Once we move beyond the technical and aesthetic questions of composing, the personal questions are quite different.

RK: How so?

LL: Generally the men ask about the business of composing and the young women ask about the lifestyle. Because of a thousand years of history, I think it’s easier for young men to envision themselves as composers. Even if they don’t know what that means, there has been a thousand years and a very long list of role models to emulate. Young women find it more difficult for them to envision their whole lives as composers, even though we have a few models. There are only a few models. There isn’t a critical mass of these adventurers (…which is what composers are, adventurers…). I ask the young women, “Well, look around you, how is it for the people around you?” And most of them describe rather traditional gender models that are available to them in the universities. Hardly any of them envision a professional life outside the universities. It’s difficult for a composer anyway, but for some reason, women seem to have a harder time visualizing surviving on their own. That’s part of it. Another part is that the art of performance is really a social art. To succeed you have to strike up good working relationships with performers and conductors, and it’s very difficult to do with integrity…very difficult.

RK: Well, it makes sense – with performers, there’s mixing going on. They know each other. They freelance. They get together. They join groups, any number of things.

LL: Right, and a composer can mix with performers with some regularity. But to try to mix with conductors, it is difficult. You have to meet them in social situations which often are dominated by ingrained gender stereotypes. And so to establish yourself as an intellectual partner to the conductor is a difficult task.

RK: Do you see any changes brewing? Do you see anything occurring with younger women. Do you see any signs, or does this thing continue to roll?

LL: While I see great artistry and vigor with many young women composers, I think it’s going to continue to roll until there is a critical mass of women who are also in administration positions and the power positions. We’ve got to see many more women on the podium. There are a number of really fine women conductors who ought to be considered for major positions. And do you see that happening?

RK: Well, Jo Ann Falletta got appointed at the Buffalo Philharmonic, and Marin Alsop has the Colorado Symphony, but otherwise women conductors rarely move up the ladder. Even the ones that everyone thought were even heading towards those positions, like Catherine Comet or Gisèle Ben-Dor. It’s the most capricious, hard-to-understand ladder I’ve ever seen. It’s very bizarre, almost mystical. What a system!

LL: In composition, we have two Pulitzer Prize winners, and there ought to be more. I don’t think it’s malicious. I think it’s ingrained.

RK: What do you attribute that to? In terms of kids studying music, for instance, there are more and more music education programs and more teachers being hired. More and more partnerships between schools and musical organizations are emerging, such as the SPCO Connect Program. That’s one where during the early grades, the curriculum is very heavy with basic composition: using basic sounds and letting kids manipulate these sounds. And when you look at that you think it should be an absolute even playing field, there should be no predetermining factor. These kids are collecting sounds. They have this thing called the Sound Museum. They collect their sounds and they draw pictures of them. They have any number of composers and musicians going into the classrooms, helping them understand how they can put together and create all sorts of things. So you look at that, and it’s dead even gender-wise. Now, these are kids today. What kids were doing, if they were even doing that, ten or 15 years ago, that’s another story.

LL: Right. Kind of like my grade school experience where everybody wrote music.

RK: So where do you think the trigger and the filter occur?

LL: In lower school, things tend not to be gender biased at all. But the kids are still taught that Beethoven is the best composer who ever lived. And the canon of composers’ names that they’re still being given already sets the thing in motion, because they’re all men. Nowadays people may add Hildegaard von Bingen, but Hildegaard is so distant from anybody’s current life experience. It is very difficult to equate a visionary abbess who composed chant with a modern young girl’s life path! Then you move into instruments, and the gender stereotyping that goes on in assigning kids instruments is unbelievable. The boys are headed towards brass and percussion; the girls are steered towards flutes, clarinets, a little percussion, and maybe one or two saxophones. Maybe some brave girl tries the double bass. And then the kids start to learn jazz and the girls are often filtered out by senior high school. If they go on in orchestra, then they’ll head into their school orchestras or into their youth orchestras where the compositional canon is overwhelmingly male again.

6. Advice for Younger Composers

RK: What advice would you give to younger composers? (This could lead directly from what we were just discussing in terms of gender issues, or it could be just for younger composers, period.)

LL: The best advice I have to offer is to establish wonderful relationships with great performers. And to nurture those relationships and always work towards and with performance, work with performance.

RK: But you know what a young composer will say… How do you do that? I’m just starting out. I just got out of school. I just had a couple of performances in school with some of the student groups. I’ll keep in touch with my colleagues, hopefully their careers will expand, but how do I make new contacts? How do I get to meet the Juilliard Quartet? How do I get to meet the Kronos Quartet? How do I get to meet Dawn Upshaw? What do I do now?

LL: I know how difficult this is. You have to become part of the musical community in which you live and work. It’s a matter of developing relationships, and that takes many acts of courage. Each new relationship really is an act of courage. If you admire particular performers, and you’d like to work with them at some point, it may take years, but the ability to develop and maintain good respectful working relationships is really what the art of music is about in the performing world. Don’t you think?

RK: I do. I think it’s the most difficult thing, however.

LL: It is, it’s very frightening and there’s no formula for it, but if you believe in your own music, then others will too.

RK: No, there’s no formula, and in addition to that, you’re looking at all sorts of subsets, and people who clearly see the subsets. The other day, I was speaking to a composer (who shall go nameless) about the academic world. (The university world is separate to a great degree.) She said to me that she and her friends had formed a little community of younger composers and had kind of given up on the university world. And so the issue is not for us to discuss necessarily how to change that, but the fact that that does exist, even. Not only are composers faced with just simply having to get out there, having to meet people, having to be confident in their work, asking someone to listen to their tape, or to look at the score, or to play it. In addition to all that, they’re looking at minefields that have to do with subsets and sub-communities; it’s almost a tribal culture in a way.

LL: It really is. You just have to be able to hang out in that world. And there are some worlds that you just can’t hang out in, no matter how hard you try. It takes time. I think the big mistake for a young composer is to think that (…getting back to the question of when are you successful…) you ought to be successful by the time you’re thirty. But we get and give a lot of messages: the BMI Awards, the ASCAP awards. Even within our own very well meaning fields, we create a definition of failure.

RK: Without a doubt. The person I was talking about had a similar discussion with me and she felt that the awards are really misunderstood.

LL: There should just be awards for good work. So why is there an age limit to them? It’s a double standard. But the young composer can feel a pressure to succeed defined by prizes and milestones and reinforced by well-meaning people. It’s self-imposed, but the pressure is definitely within the field.

RK: Often these competitions are an affirmation. This gets back to what we were talking about before. I played in this quintet for 15 years and we won all sorts of competitions. But the thing we were looking for was a Naumburg Award, which we finally won in 1990. We were only the second brass quintet ever to have won that. That did something: we felt like we had arrived, we felt as if we now had a right to talk to whomever we wanted to talk to, or to try. Was our work any better after the Naumburg? Did we play any better at the Naumburg Concert than we did a year-and-a-half before that? The most important thing is about the internal voice, the inner voice, and what the Naumburg did for our inner voices and our image of ourselves. But what if someone doesn’t win these things? Does that mean their inner voice is going to be shaky for a while? There are tremendous questions of confidence. There are tremendous questions for trying to wade through waters, especially in an emerging period.

LL: That’s right. I avoided entering any competitions. I didn’t even apply for most of the programs we created at the Forum. I didn’t want the pressure of the prize undermining my own path to finding music that affirmed my reason for writing it. Although, at the same time, a prize can be affirming.

RK: Well, it can be, but it can be false too; it’s a trap. You’ve got to feel comfortable with what you’re doing. You’ve got to build that somehow. If that means finding some way to make that happen, that may work for some people. You saw it as a tool, and you probably understood that it’s double-edged.

LL: Yes, it is double-edged, because you may begin to believe it. And more than that, other people begin to believe that the prize is a measure of your success. And that’s really dangerous because expectation can threaten your creative voice. Then you’ve got some real problems. For a young composer, it’s important to feel very comfortable that your own voice is growing, and that you’ve mastered the techniques to help it grow, and that you’re finding the performers who believe in your voice and want to grow with you. That’s real success.

RK: Well, it’s understanding the process. Someone has to help you see the process and understand your place in it, or the point at which you’re in that process.

LL: Yes, we need to re-discover how to teach composing as a process of personal growth as well as technical mastery.

7. Music and Spoken American English

RK: In describing your music, you were once quoted as saying that, “It can be recognized by its rhythm more than anything else.” You also described how music in general can be derived from the rhythms and pitches of spoken American English. How does this play out in your process, and eventually in your work?

LL: Let me discuss the piece I’m composing right now. These questions are in the front of my mind. I’m working on a string symphony, a piece I’ve wanted to compose for a long time. The Minnesota Orchestra commissioned it.

I believe that the music that grows over time in a culture grows out of the language those people speak. Instruments evolve out of a culture in order to express the culture through sound.

With the exception of the violin becoming a fiddle and the contrabass becoming a plucked bass, I see that the core of the orchestra (the strings) are instruments which have not naturally, found their way into the ensembles that have developed American Musics (…ragtime, gospel, big-band, country-western, rock-and-roll…). And these are the ensembles that accompany the singing of words in American English. And so I’m wondering what, if anything, a string orchestra has to do with American English? American English is more rhythmic than melodic. It’s truncated and full of body language punctuation. I’m not sure that we have a sense of what is lyrical in this culture we’re forming other than moments of nostalgia.

My string symphony asks the question: What is the lyricism of American life and American English, and what, if anything, does this have to do with a European evolved string section?

RK: I’ve often wondered about contemporary opera, and its lack of that sort of “killer aria.” I went to see Emmeline, which I enjoyed very much. I walked away from it thinking that it had, certainly in the story itself, very dramatic moments where the story almost brought down the house, where there were just tremendous moments. But when you compare that to Tosca, there isn’t the moment for the audience to stop and break out into applause and say “Aaahh!” and embrace the performers or throw things at the performers if they didn’t like what they did. And you’re exactly right. You do hear works that try to reach for melodic high points — “killer arias” — and they wind up sounding like Hollywood, or old-fashioned. What does that mean? What impact does that have on the form itself? What does that say about the form? You’ve articulated that in a very different way. What are you finding about writing the piece, from this being one of the questions about the lyricism of strings in our age?

LL: I’ve been finding that it’s very difficult to find an original lyricism for orchestral strings that flows naturally out of American English. You know, I was thinking, where in our concerts do we wildly break out into applause? Where the music starts, and everybody breaks out into applause? Where is it for you?

RK: Well, it happens in jazz concerts all the time. I mean, they don’t break out wildly, but sometimes it’s polite applause for a performer.

LL: A really great solo, and everybody’s just going crazy…

RK: It happened at the end of Joseph Schwantner‘s Percussion Concerto. There’s no doubt that the audience went crazy. It’s an incredible piece of music. When I was in Vienna for a conference, I went to see Tosca, and people burst out. There was this incredible reaction when they sing particular arias. And it happens at rock concerts, absolutely — the popular form has retained that.

LL: Yes, they have retained it. I was thinking of Springsteen concerts. You know, the band strikes up and everybody just goes, “YES!” But it’s not about words; it’s about something else. Schwantner’s Concerto is not about words.

RK: Although rap music is about words. It’s about words and rhythm and not about lyricism.

LL: Isn’t that curious?

RK: So why is it, you can have a popular piece (…these questions apply to other forms as well, I think, to a certain extent, they apply to musical theater…) that there are all sorts of questions about. You know, people say, well, why don’t they write something like Guys and Dolls? Well, if you try to write something like Guys and Dolls, it sounds like it’s completely out of place and corny. But a lot of the popular forms are able to retain this. They’re able to retain soaring melodies.

LL: Well a lot of the popular composers (Hank Williams, for instance) create from instruments that aren’t approached through classical performance tradition. When Hank Williams sings “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” the guitars accompanying him speak and enhance the language that he sings, the way he sings it. So, in his songs, the instruments, the language, and the melodies evolved symbiotically. It’s worth talking about.

RK: It is, it’s actually another very complicated and deep discussion, and we’ll have to do a “Part Two” one day.