Tag: listening

Tracing Influence

Open Faucets

My mind is blank, but down one inch deep I have, we have, access. Access to what happened before—the universe is embedded in all of us. Is that too dreamy? What we heard, what was seen, what was felt…all that was picked up along the way. As moments click by, we find ourselves moving through time and space picking up fragments of experience. Our senses are tuned to what we want to hear and what we want to block. Some sounds stick—context, emotion, and openness allow for the sound faucet to be turned on. We ponder, work through, process, and invent. Invention is a tricky proposition. Are any sounds or structures unheard?

Open Faucets

Consider the path of water. An object in the water can be followed, but the water itself?  Does it matter? We live in a culture of mix-up. This line of thought circles towards the question: What are artists thinking about? What informs their decisions?

In the digital age, we are tethered to each other more than at any other time in history. We are surrounded by thousands of unfiltered sounds. The way that we experience art and culture has been retooled and re-imagined—for better or worse, this is the “now” in the 21st century.

We have always had cultural gatekeepers: artists, publishers, concert promoters, radio producers, teachers, etc. At the top of this filtering process is the mind and ears of the artist.

Often I take the “fixed” hierarchy of the music world too seriously and to keep things in check I often think about Jad Fair. I am still in awe over this lo-fi pioneer and how he is clear that he can only sound like Jad Fair. Part of the question of influence is what do artists want to sound like. Jad touches on his sound and idyllic philosophy in the liner notes to 1995’s Half Japanese – Greatest Hits:

Tuning the guitar is kind of a ridiculous notion. If you have to wind the tuning pegs to just a certain place, that implies that every other place would be wrong. But that’s absurd. How could it be wrong? It’s your guitar and you’re the one playing it. It’s completely up to you to decide how it should sound.

Musical lineage and the idea of tracing influence in contemporary composition and interpretative approaches is a fascinating topic. In many ways I find it mirrors the complexities of the natural world around us and the personalities within it, and the deeper I dig into it, the more questions I have.

My interest in tracing influences grew out of group listening sessions that I hosted during my tenure at the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage in Philadelphia. Each session was an opportunity to get together in an open forum to discuss artistic process and actively listen to current work. We listened to music that served as a point of reference or influenced the participating artists. The process was not straightforward, but it was rewarding in many ways. Mostly by offering the group a new way to unpack each other’s work.  Tempesta di Mare, the early music ensemble from Philadelphia, has carved out a distinct position on the world stage interpreting very old music. Still, questions of influence deeply impact their work:

Music evolves gradually. Emerging new styles carry within them the bones and souls of their parents, and the musicians who first played each new style bore in their minds and ears the practices honed playing what had come before. Both as individual musicians and as an ensemble engaged in the study and performance of old music, we cultivate variety and specificity in our approach to different repertoires by immersing ourselves in their antecedents and influences.

I keep returning to the hall of mirrors of this topic. All music contains many of the same building blocks and elements. Is it possible to chart influence? How do artists push the dial forward or—in Tempesta’s case—backward? On one end of the spectrum we have exact reconstruction of past work, and way over on the other end we have innovation and invention. Even those lines arch and seem to connect.

Human Mind

As listeners, what are we attached to? At what point in life have we made up our musical minds? Do we have to eat our musical vegetables to grow strong? Listen to Bach, Blind Willie, Carnatic music?

In my youth, I spent hours late at night in suburban Atlanta catching the radical sounds of WREK freeform radio—it was a lifeline to the world and my first real exposure to underground music. I was inspired by DIY and alternative music and still reference that as my true north. The intensity and immediate nature of that music informed my ears and to this day they are tuned from that experience.

Recently I was at the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum. They now offer a new type of museum experience with a digital collection wand that acts as both a virtual notebook and interpretive tool to interact with the museum collection.  After your visit, you have a personalized URL link with the collection of objects that you scanned and more context and historical data. You have access to the catalog of objects and real time connections to the history.

Could we have the musical equivalent of those interpretive tools—a collection and museum of sound and music?  Is that the concert hall or university music library? The internet or iTunes? What can help provide context for the music and enrich and inform the listening experience? Will that change the end result, deepen the experience, or help uncover influence?

As both a composer and percussionist, I have tried to look for potential in sound and what sounds everyday objects and nature make in the world around us. Over the years I have trained myself to tune in—not tune up, not judge—and look for structure and logic in all work. I challenge myself to crack the code: how do the structures within the sound work.

We accumulate so much sound experience in our heads that the pre-cognitive elements in work are nearly impossible to trace. As we zoom out, influences that will never be apparent in the music alone might be known by the artist and can only be identified by the artist through conversation. I propose we actively listen together and discuss music in real time. Listening sessions can be a tool to begin to trace influences, first by the artist articulating conscious ones and then the group, through conversation, surfacing unconscious ones.

If we look through the window into the personalities and viewpoints of the great composers and interpreters of our time, we will find a fountain that offers years of thoughtful approaches and reference points—what is undeniably theirs and what they borrowed and processed through their interpretive minds.

As a companion to this essay, I have asked sound artist Camille Norment, pianist Simone Dinnestein, and composer Colin Jacobsen to contribute a short description of a current project along with a point of reference that may have led them to form their work. This is not a simple equation and there could be hundreds of trace influences for each piece.

Regardless, what they offered is both insightful and rich, and I am grateful to these amazing artists for taking time out of their busy schedules to contribute to this piece and shed light on how other music inspired and informed their musical perspectives and personalities.

In this brief essay Simone offers poetic insight into her interpretive approach and how it connects to historical performance practice and the bones of the score itself. We recognize the characteristic sound of a piano, but it is interesting to consider what sets the conditions for the performance to be otherworldly and how those conditions arc towards or away from a set lineage and performance traditions.

Simone Dinnerstein on Schubert’s Impromptu No.3 in Gb, Op 90

I am fascinated by the language of instrumental music.  Somehow tones and rhythm can create subtly particular messages that affect us in varied and profound ways.  Music is so communicative that I have trouble focusing on words when they accompany sounds.  I love listening to German lieder and find it some of the most beautiful and emotional music, and yet I don’t know what the words mean. In fact, I don’t really want to know.  To me, the words often pale in comparison to the music.

Certain composers like Bach and Schubert wrote a great deal for the voice and were used to setting text to music.  Their musical settings incorporated breath and all of the phrasing and articulations of speech—the pauses for reflection, the excited rushing forward of a new idea, the sudden shift in tone.

Schubert’s Impromptu in Gb is essentially a song, with the 5th finger of the right hand acting as vocalist.  I thought a lot about how I would sing the line, where the breaths would be, where I would alter a sustained tone.  How to do this on a piano was a challenge.  One of my favorite Schubert recordings is of Renée Fleming and Christoph Eschenbach.  Fleming has an uncanny ability to change the color of a note while she sustains it. It’s as beautiful as watching the light change through shifting clouds and rustling leaves.  I tried to find a way to do this on the piano, an instrument where the sound is out of your hands the moment that the key has been played.  Playing the piano is like being an illusionist, working with balancing the voices within the texture and with pedaling to create a vocal effect.

Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau’s recording of Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin was my first taste of lieder and remains a huge influence on me.  He and the pianist Gerald Moore highly characterized every phrase.  They took Schubert’s score and completely created an imaginative world, using the score as a beginning rather than an end.

Pianists tend to be very literal when it comes to the score.  I prefer to look at it as a rough guide.  In this impromptu there are many hairpins, areas where there is a crescendo and then a decrescendo.  In quite a few parts I think this is about intensity as opposed to volume.  Sometimes the increase in intensity actually manifests itself by growing alarmingly quieter.

I see this Impromptu as being full of memory and longing for the past.  There is a bittersweet and heartbreaking beauty in it that feels very personal and intimate.  I worked with filmmaker Tristan Cook to make a visual representation of this.  We used images of my family and home as well as images of distance, isolation, and nature.  It’s not a narrative, but a type of filmic poem to the music.

Encoding and decoding: Colin outlines a complex map of influence connecting to Kandinsky, Dada, Shara Worden, and David Byrne! He also includes some insight into the origins of the name of his quartet, Brooklyn Rider. I was fortunate enough to see the performance he references at Jacob’s Pillow.  It’s a fantastic example of how multiple styles, forms, and disciplines collide and borrow to inform compositional decisions.

Colin Jacobsen on Exit

I wrote Exit as part of an evening-length song cycle/dance theater piece called Chalk And Soot in collaboration with choreographer John Heginbotham and his company Dance Heginbotham. The music was written for my quartet, Brooklyn Rider, and the amazing vocalist Shara Worden (My Brightest Diamond).

I realize that the song, though only five minutes, packs in a ton of influences. First, there’s Shara herself, whose clear, unaffected, and totally committed singing style has made her a muse to a number of composers—and, of course, she also writes her own great songs. There’s the text, by Wassily Kandinsky from Klange (Sounds), a book of woodcuts and strange, humorous poems that influenced the Swiss Dada artists and Russian Futurists. This is from the time of the Blue Rider Group, which included the likes of the composer Arnold Schoenberg and the painter Franz Marc. (Brooklyn Rider derives its name in part from the inspiration of this cross-disciplinary collective.) This text, though almost more prose than poetry (and in a translated version) still has a wonderful, weird, childlike rhythm and musicality that I thought would work well with dance and the active imagination of John Heginbotham. Finally, at the time I was writing this, I was reading David Byrne’s book encoding his thoughts on music and the creative process, How Music Works. I appreciated his practical, stripped-down and de-mystified approach to creativity. He kind of exemplifies the words in Shara’s song “Be Brave.” Incidentally, check out Brooklyn Rider violinist Johnny Gandelsman grooving out to David Bryne’s song “This Must Be the Place” starting around 1:40.

Feldman, architecture, and primal instinct are a few parts of the complex sphere of influences Camille calls out. It’s fascinating to consider how architecture and physical space can inform sonic choices. Camille turns over her compositional strategies that link the human body as a resonating chamber, the Venice Biennale Nordic pavilion, and the overarching exploration of censored relationships between the body and sound.

Camille Norment on Rapture 2015

Rapture is an audio performance work I created for my participation in the Venice Biennale 2015 in the Nordic Pavilion. The work emerges out of specific sonic and conceptual elements from the sculptural sound installation I created for the pavilion, and on site, it uses the pavilion itself as an instrument. The other voices include the Camille Norment Trio comprised of myself primarily on glass armonica and text, Håvard Skaset on electric guitar, and Vegar Vårdal on Hardanger fiddle; David Toop on flute, electronics, and text; the Oslo 14 vocal ensemble; and Sofia Jernberg’s powerful solo vocalizations.

A significant influence for this work was the conceptual positioning that I had towards my earlier Toll project. In Rapture, I wanted to further the exploration of censored relationships between the body and sound. Tonally, I centered Rapture around the tritone interval, which is simply any combination of two notes that are six half-steps apart. The tritone was banned in the medieval period and thought to be sinister due to the unease of its sound and lack of tonal resolution. Here, I can also reference experimental composer Arne Norheim, who once said, “Music lives in the realm between poetry and catastrophe.” Seeking to suspend the sonic experience in a space between ecstasy and trauma, I gave the tritone to the all-female chorus members to sing, as one elongated breath at a time. The effect the chorus has as functioning simultaneously as a whole and as individuals has some likeness to the third movement of Morton Feldman’s Rothko Chapel. In both the Rapture installation and performances, however, I took this function more to an extreme, and placed emphasis on the voices belonging to physical bodies. I also used the Nordic pavilion itself as a body within this framework, attaching audio exciters to the large shards of broken glass and exciting them with tones from the glass armonica. The glass armonica, like the Hardanger fiddle and electric guitar, was once banned for fear of the power of its music over the body and in fear of its use to rupture social norms, especially related to the female body, music, and sexuality. Sofia Jernberg has an ability to adeptly perform what I refer to as ‘pre-lingual’ vocalization—a type of vocal communication that just precedes language and relies primarily on musical texture. My research into hysteria (also shell shock) guided my crafting of Sofia’s contribution, and brought the work full circle, back to the body, music, society, and the tensions between raptures (ecstasy) and ruptures (traumas).

Jeff Arnal

Jeff Arnal has worked in the arts and nonprofit sector for the past two decades first as a composer and percussionist, and later as a curator, writer, administrator, and producer. Currently he lives in Asheville, North Carolina, where he is the artistic director of Free Range Asheville, a platform for performance, research, and discourse.

James Moore: The Hunt for Sonic Solutions

“I’ll warn you, I’m a little bit of a perfectionist,” guitarist James Moore confesses to sound engineer James Dellatacoma as they set up to record a complete performance of John Zorn’s The Book of Heads, a challenging collection of 35 etudes. “I’ll probably be like, ‘Well, it said that’s supposed to be a high whoop not a low whoop; I better do it again’.”

This scene—captured as part of an absorbing CD/DVD recording of the work that he released last month on the Tzadik label—is overlaid with Moore’s self-effacing laughter, but his performance of the music itself sees him navigating reams of such non-traditional tasks with remarkable focus. While the etudes are billed as being composed for solo guitar, their presentation actually requires an additional arsenal of sound-making tools which Moore also manages, here including “fifteen balloons, two violin bows, three mbira keys, a slide bar, nail file, spring, metal rod, ratchet, pipe cleaner, talking toy, finger cymbals, thirty grains of rice, some Styrofoam, and an extra string.” With a supply list like that, it perhaps goes without saying that some serious interpretive powers on the part of the player serve an essential role in the presentation of the music as well.

It also neatly frames Moore’s talent and enthusiasm for solving musical problems in order to bring engaging sounds to life. This applies whether he’s working as a solo artist playing a banjo, a mandolin, or a guitar (which could be acoustic, steel-string resonator, electric, or classical) or working in one of the wide variety of ensemble situations he’s a part of, such as the Dither electric guitar quartet or his mixed band The Hands Free.

“I guess that idea of problem solving is something that’s always intrigued me. Now I’m older and jaded and a little stuck in my ways in some ways, but I hope I still have that desire to solve things and to seek out new sounds.”

It’s an instinct that he can actually trace back to his early studies.

“I was sort of always drawn to the more unconventional side of things,” Moore says, recalling an anecdote from his grade-school days. “I went to my piano teacher and said that at the school Christmas concert I wanted to do a medley of carols, but I wanted to put all sorts of things inside the piano to make noises and stuff. And my piano teacher said, ‘You know that’s been done before?’ and handed me John Cage’s Silence. So I was already finding some of these weirder corners of the musical world.”

Just before the release of his Book of Heads recording, Moore also put out Gertrudes, an album of duos with violinist Andie Springer that were written by a range of composers including Larry Polansky, Paula Matthusen, Ken Thomson, Lainie Fefferman, Robert Ashley, and Moore himself. Moore and Springer began collaborating while touring with a theatrical production and developed their project during their down time, eventually reaching out to friends and colleagues and booking shows as they passed through town.

“It’s very eclectic, but I think it works,” Moore acknowledges, highlighting the social strengths of the project and the fun of building its foundation out of just what they had at hand while traveling. As his myriad instrumental interests underline, “I’m most happy being a musician and trying anything that’s given to me.”

While Moore continues to fine-tune his professional focus as he gathers experience, he also keeps an ear open to what may find him when he’s not actively looking.

“It’s not necessarily that you pick it. You maybe find yourself having a tendency towards different types of music or certain genres, but sometimes these things pick you.”

Linda Oh: Lean In and Listen

Towards the end of our conversation, composer and bassist Linda Oh shares a formative lesson from a recording session for her first album Entry.

I had written everything and wanted things a certain way. Then when I got together with the other musicians, they were strong players and I realized that whatever preconceptions I had, things weren’t necessarily going to be exactly how I wanted them. That was a great thing for me because it challenged me to think, “Okay, how am I going to let go of my initial vision and just go play?”

She is speaking about herself, of course, but it’s also striking how applicable it is to anyone—musician or listener—who finds themselves mentally tangled up in preconceptions before the music starts.

Oh’s interest in a malleable and personally expressive approach to music making is actually something that began pulling at her aesthetically much earlier. While growing up in Perth, Australia, she and her sisters studied classical music from a young age, an education her family took very seriously. And while she remains appreciative of the technical skill she derived, she stresses the importance of freedom and sincerity in the music she performs now.

“In the music that I play, I’m really allowed to do what I feel and be who I am,” she explains. Still she doesn’t feel she has abandoned her early training so much as continued developing her musical voice—appreciating the push and pull between discipline and freedom. “There was never one particular point where I thought I’m going to switch from classical into jazz or improvised music. I’m going to do one thing and not the other. It’s all music and it’s all tied in together in some way.”

And her instrument—whether an electric strapped across her body or an upright acoustic with which she moves almost as a dance partner—has become an integral piece of that self-expression. “That is who I am now. It is so much a part of my identity that I can’t imagine playing another instrument this seriously.”

While the idea of the bass player leading the band remains enough of a novelty to attract comment, Oh seems to find it simply an option among many offering unique strengths and influences on the music. She does acknowledge that her personal style may be a bit more democratic than some bandleaders and that her interests are often focused on “creating space or a palette for other people to work with.” But that isn’t to imply that she shies away from taking the reins—or the melody.

Group dynamics are an area that Oh is sensitive to since the acoustic bass often needs the support of amplification to cut through the band. Still, she sees the technical limitations of her own or any particular instrument as fuel for creating new spaces for sound.

“With the tradition of [the bass], especially within a jazz context,” she points out, “there has been emphasis placed on having a huge acoustic sound, which I definitely value and it’s something that I teach my students. But in addition to having a big string sound, a lot can be done by dialing things back. It’s like if you talk to a large crowd of people, you can talk really loudly over them, but if you try and talk softer it’s interesting to see how many people will actually lean in and listen more.”

Once again, the conversation swings around to just that: listening. And whether Oh is improvising in the company of familiar players or new colleagues, that’s a fundamental focus no matter where the music might unexpectedly take them.

“It’s risk, but you’re still playing with people and you’re still respecting people. The worst thing I think for humanity is when people aren’t listening to each other. And that’s not just a musical thing, it’s a life thing.”

My Sunshine

Sheila Jordan frequently tells the story of how listening to Charlie Parker’s 1945 recording of “Now’s The Time” changed her life; hearing it made her devote her life to jazz. She still remembers putting her nickel in that jukebox in vivid detail.

I have a similar memory, but the life-changing recording for me was George Russell’s “You Are My Sunshine” featuring Sheila Jordan. At the time I did not know that it was her first major recording (and actually only the second time she ever appeared on a record). I also knew almost nothing about jazz. To remedy that, I was taking a jazz appreciation class during my freshman year at Columbia University. I now treasure almost everything I heard in that class, but at the time jazz was still not clicking for me. Then one day, toward the end of the semester, my professor launched into a tirade about “what went wrong with jazz.” He talked about how jazz started losing its connection to popular culture and began to emulate avant-garde contemporary classical music—my ears suddenly perked up; he was finally speaking what I believed was my language. Then he played an example of something he felt was the beginning of this tendency, the point at which jazz took that wrong fork in the road. What he played was George Russell’s recording of “You Are My Sunshine.”

On the original LP cover for George Russell's The Outer View (which is not the image reproduced in subsequent reissues), Russell is standing in front of the Guggenheim Museum in NYC.

One of the highlights of George Russell’s 1962 Riverside LP The Outer View is his off-kilter arrangement of “You Are My Sunshine” featuring the voice of Sheila Jordan.

In the very beginning of the arrangement, this famous tune is not recognizable at all; instead there are angular figurations in the horns that sound like something out of Edgard Varèse. Eventually, Russell bangs out the melody on the piano, accompanying it with a torrent of tone clusters. Then, at about ten minutes in, everyone stops playing and, after a moment of silence, an unaccompanied female voice enters singing a highly embellished version of the melody. It is vulnerable and, paradoxically, also extremely powerful. As amazed as I was by what Russell had done to this song, I was even more amazed by that voice. Eventually, the horns return with their figurations and gradually the whole ensemble enters in and ultimately drowns out the singer and it comes to an end.

To this day, it remains one of the most exrtaordinary things I have ever heard in my life. But at that instant, I finally understood how interpretation becomes a form of composition in jazz. Everything I heard after that, I heard in a new way. That wrong fork in the road is what changed my life. First I tracked down all of Russell’s Riverside recordings, then I moved on to all of the sidemen—Eric Dolphy (who was on many of these sessions but unfortunately not on “You Are My Sunshine”) became an obsession and Don Ellis (who went on to form a polystylistic big band) became the subject of one of my first published articles about music.

And then there was Sheila Jordan. At first I couldn’t find anything else. After years of scouring the bins, I finally tracked down her mesmerizing debut LP on Blue Note which, to this day, is my favorite jazz vocal album. Little by little, I tracked down everything else, and I tried to hear her live whenever she sang in New York City as well. By this time, I had become an avid jazz record collector, devouring every alternative take I could get my hands on. That was the fork in the road I went down, which I owe to “You Are My Sunshine.” To finally hear Sheila Jordan describe how this unique recording came about has been equally transformative.

Video Presentation by Molly Sheridan
You can read the entire conversation with Sheila Jordan here.

Digital to Analog: Plug and Play

The Boston Daily Globe surveys the frozen scene, March 13, 1888.

The Boston Daily Globe surveys the frozen scene, March 13, 1888.

Our latest blizzard in these parts hit New England while I was out of town for a wedding. The result was a lot of time on the phone: arranging new flights, arranging extended hotel reservations, and (having arrived back in Boston to a non-functioning car) arranging a tow through a somewhat overextended AAA. Did I mention the roof? The roof started leaking; start calling roofers.

What this means is that my wife and I have listened to a lot of telephone hold music over this past month: Muzak, soft rock, the allegedly calming strains of the most mainstream classical-lite repertoire imaginable. And it made me think of something that might be worth writing down, which is this: right now, in 2015, when technology is more amazing than it’s ever been, when what we call a “telephone” is, for most of us, actually a pocket-sized computer of sufficient power and capability that, twenty years ago, it would have been considered in the realm of science fiction—in spite of all this, telephone hold music is still defiantly and even hilariously low fidelity. It is still rendered back to the ear in the most tinny possible timbre.

Oddly, and surprisingly, that just might say something fairly deep and intricate about the history of music.

* * *

There’s one common feature to the way music has been made and experienced over the past century or so, a feature that cuts across genre and style, a feature so ubiquitous we don’t really have to think about it anymore. And it came into music by way of the telephone. It’s this:

Phone Plug

This is, of course, a quarter-inch phone plug. It’s what’s at the end of most patch cords. If you’ve ever worked with an electric guitar, or bass, or keyboard, or a modular synthesizer, or a mixing board—and so on—you’ve used this plug. If you’ve ever listened to music through headphones, you’ve used it as well—or its smaller, eighth-inch sibling. It’s a linchpin of amplification, recording—any musical activity that uses electricity.

It’s actually older than you might think—it’s certainly older than I thought it was. The familiar form of it dates from at least 1880: that’s when Charles E. Scribner applied for a patent for a “certain new and useful Improvement in Spring-Jack Switches” that included a diagram of a plug nearly identical to the one still used today.

Scribner PT489570 figure

The idea, though, goes back at least another couple of decades, to “plug-switches”: a metal contact and a metal spring—completing an electric circuit—and a metal wedge that one could insert between the two. Plug-switches came into common use with telegraphy; Scribner adapted them into the plug-and-jack arrays of telephone switchboards. (The etymology here preserves some technological history: the first telephone switchboards were just that, boards of manual switches that had to be flipped one by one; Scribner’s first try at a suitable plug-switch looked like a jack-knife, which is why we still call the connection a jack.)

The key part of the modern phone plug is the ring of insulation between the tip and the sleeve. It’s what lets both signal and ground flow through a single plug—the tip conducts the signal, the sleeve conducts the ground. (Add more rings of insulation and more interspersed metal rings and the plug can carry more conductors. A stereo plug, for instance, adds an extra ring between the tip and the sleeve.) The insulation—the gap—keeps everything separated, preventing short circuits, ensuring the flow of current.

The signal fidelity of the phone plug is pretty robust. But the drive behind the development of the phone plug wasn’t signal fidelity; it was efficiency. The phone plug—and the spring-jack—let more telephone connection points be packed into a smaller space, and let switchboard operators make (and break) those connections with a single physical gesture. And it let those connections be made again and again and again. The connection embodied in the phone plug, is, in fact, at odds with the communicative connection of music. A connection made with a phone plug is reliable; a connection made via music is not.

* * *

"Hello! Telephones provide communication." From Gaston Serpette's "La demoiselle du téléphone," 1891.

“Hello! We are calling and giving the gift of communication.” From Gaston Serpette’s “La demoiselle du téléphone” (1891).

There have always been and always will be composers who adopt technology as a subject matter head on. Gabrieli. Berlioz. Stockhausen. Tristan Perich has put the physical nature of computer technology front and center; Mikel Rouse has turned our 24/7 interaction with media technology into opera. It’s a rich, rich area of exploration.

But I find it most interesting when technology turns up in the music of composers who aren’t necessarily thought of as being particularly technologically minded, at least thematically speaking. Consider three examples, one older, two more recent:

Francis Poulenc’s 1958 La voix humaine, to a libretto by Jean Cocteau, is perhaps the most famous operatic telephone call in the repertoire, a one-woman tour de force presenting a love affair’s entire history and dissolution through a single, one-sided, technologically mediated (and, occasionally, sabotaged) conversation. Nico Muhly’s 2011 opera Two Boys (libretto by Craig Lucas) might be its descendent, a traditionally operatic tale of obsession and violence that instead swirls through the internet. Gabriel Kahane’s Craigslistlieder, a 2006 song cycle setting texts drawn from online personal ads, is precisely breezy, miniatures that capture something of the fleeting yet permanently preserved nature of online interactions.

In La voix humaine, Poulenc displays all his usual hallmarks of musical surrealism: the abrupt shifts, the use of pop music tropes to produce immediate but sometimes alienatingly oblique emotional beats, the cold comfort of standard progressions. The music of the internet in Two Boys is—at a slight but fascinating stylistic variance to the rest of the opera—the driving, rhythmically tiled common-tone harmony shifts of second-wave minimalism, ingeniously yoked to another style, plainchant: online rituals of communication as reenactments of perennial patterns. Craigslistlieder goes back further, to the aphoristic expressiveness of Romantic-era song, leveraging its touchstones of yearning and loneliness.

In other words, all three composers are not inventing new styles to illustrate their given technological connectivities, but adapting an older style that best encompasses what it is about each technology that they want to highlight. The interesting thing is that all those older styles can be heard as having their own, divergent technological antecedents. The technological precursor of Poulenc’s style was cinema, with its ability to disjoint space and time through framing and montage. (Poulenc and Cocteau’s transference of that disjointedness to their subject is casually echoed in the fact that the quintessential surrealist party game—the Exquisite Corpse—would be refracted into the more prosaic game of Telephone.) Both plainchant and minimalism have musical technologies in their genomes: notation for the former, recording and studio techniques in the latter. And Romanticism? I’ve always thought of Romanticism as reflecting the technology of the letter and the democratization of postal services: self-expression and the expressive fragment united into a potent, concentrated compound. All three works, then, as different from each other as they are, do for technology what classical music has always done: reinterpret the new in terms of the old, make the connection with the tradition.

This new/old relationship between music and technology has been around for a long time, often to the point that today we don’t even hear it anymore. Those Romantic letters, for instance: in Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession, Ian Bostridge’s new book on Franz Schubert’s Winterreise, he makes a compelling point about the lied “Die Post,” of how the jaunty horn calls implied in the piano part could, in Schubert’s time, have been heard as deeply ironic, the Romantic nostalgia traditionally attached to the sound of the horn here signaling the arrival of a disruptive new connective technology—the horse-drawn mail coach.

The paradox is that, at the same time, it’s the failure to connect that has been the characteristic expressive trope of classical music, from the entreaties of troubadours to the Byronic suffering-in-isolation of the Romantic era (epitomized by Winterreise) to the alienation of modernism. In La voix humaine, the signal is constantly being dropped or interrupted. The connections in Two Boys explain everything and nothing—the drama is in misunderstanding, not understanding. (The fact that the opera’s audience stand-in character, the police investigator Anne Strawson, is not more fluent or perceptive about the internet—something that came in for criticism in reviews of the piece—is actually one of the most operatic things about it, channeling an entire lineage of figures who can’t complete or decipher a communicative connection.) The ads Kahane set for his cycle are, literally, “Missed Connections.” This is the history of opera—all the way back to Orpheus, a signal acquired, then lost.

Not just opera: it is the history of music, forever communicating—what, exactly? But forever communicating, nonetheless, even as the message gets hopelessly lost in the translation to music. And it’s not a bug; it’s a feature. Music keeps a ring of insulation between eloquence and meaning. It’s what keeps the current, the power, flowing. It’s what makes the connection so immediate.

* * *

Advertisement ca. 1899 (via the Library of Congress).

Advertisement ca. 1899 (via the Library of Congress).

“I Can Hear You,” the penultimate track on They Might Be Giants’ 1996 album Factory Showroom, was recorded on a wax cylinder, in the same manner that such recordings would have been made in the late 1800s. (The recording was made on a visit to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park in West Orange, New Jersey.) Song and technology combine into a crafty joke:


Like all the other music I’ve been discussing, the song is about communication technology—but, in this case, it’s a tribute to every such technology that privileged efficiency over fidelity. Sure, drive-through intercom systems have terrible sound quality, but they get the job done.

Telephone hold music is where this calculus between efficiency and fidelity breaks down: you can’t stop listening to how bad the reproduction is. But, then again, it gets the job done. The hold music for AAA of Southern New England, for instance, was a series of Mozart piano concerti—which I easily recognized, even though the piano sounded like an underwater glockenspiel, even though the strings groaned in and out of the mix like a squeaky hinge, even though the bass was practically non-existent.

It was, in other words, privileging structure and syntax over color and sensuality—or, at least, substituting a version of color and sensuality that was an awful lot more circumscribed and compressed than normal. Which, it turns out, is still a perfectly valid musical experience. I’ll be honest: I kind of got into it. I started to appreciate its weird, alien pings and pops. I started to hear just how little signal information you need to establish baselines for harmonic tension and resolution. I started wondering how you might go about writing a piece that would emulate these exact sounds and qualities. And I realized: people already have.

A fairly wide swath of the history of recorded and broadcasted music was limited to something approaching a hold-music level of fidelity. Wax cylinders; acoustic recordings; early 78s; primitive radio—to our ears, they sound impoverished. But to contemporary ears (judging from contemporary accounts), they sounded amazing. And no wonder: the quantum leap from a completely ephemeral art form to one that could be fixed and reproduced ad infinitum is something we can’t really comprehend. What did it matter that the sound was brittle, stark, pointillistic?

Maybe a lot—because, around the same time, musical styles in those places where recordings and radio played began a turn toward brittle, stark, and pointillistic. Jazz, with its cranked, intricately syncopated drive, its characteristic rhythm-section foundation plucked, hammered, and struck. Neoclassicism, Romantic stock boiled back down to lean harmonies, bracing clarity, and bone-dry wit. Serialism, structure and syntax schematized into the spotlight, pitch and rhythm as points on a grid. It’s almost as if musicians listened to those early recordings and began to hear music from another angle, one stripped of sonic plushness but alive with the give-and-take of musical grammar, and realized that such give-and-take in itself could be a playground for expression.

Which means that another obsolete technology gets preserved in the repertoire and the toolbox: a style to be channeled, or adapted, or rejected, but holding at its core the substance of a long-ago technological advance, alongside Schubert’s postal delivery, Poulenc’s telephone, and—in future times—Muhly and Kahane’s internet. We don’t think we’re writing and playing and hearing an archeology of technology, but we are.

Disposable Spaces, Plastic Music

I’ll be honest: I think that the burgeoning consumerism of the 18th century, and the resulting commodification of music into tangible, affordable circulating objects, was one of the main contributing factors behind the contemporary culture of musical canonization we all (myself included) love to critique. It was only a matter of time before the tangible accrued historical, mystical significance, and earned its own reliquaries in the form of “collected works” editions, the awe-inspiring concert halls of the 19th century, and, in the 20th century, “authoritative” recordings.

Which brings me to an environment for listening I have so far ignored. I suspect that many of the places we most often listen to music have little to do with any of the places I’ve mentioned in these posts; we hear mostly recorded music, and we likely hear it alone—in a car, through headphones, maybe through a set of speakers at home.

This kind of listening space is simultaneously ephemeral—in that it is fundamentally malleable—and monumental—in that its infinite repeatability aspires to cultural permanence. I can listen to the latest ICE album on any type of speakers while doing almost anything, and I can also listen to it repeatedly such that I have it memorized.

In fact, it is here, in the realm of recorded sound, that we can truly observe the difficulty (I won’t say impossibility) of ephemerality today. Live musical events of all kinds are usually recorded. Sometimes, those recordings become collectibles, like any Live at the Village Vanguard album. Ironically, this happens among some of the most self-consciously progressive communities of listeners as well, including Phish or Grateful Dead fans who trade (often bootlegged) recordings of particular concerts. Moreover, live events have long been forums for the promotion of recorded music. (I know better than to say CD sales…)
So, it’s fair to say that the ephemeral experience can far more easily be pushed into the monumental than the other way around, not merely by force of recordings and the like, but also by its very commoditization. Is it possible for music to be genuinely ephemeral when it is traded for money? The difficulty of answering this question should explain why Fluxus folks (have) had to be anti-commercial in order to fully embrace event-driven sound-art.

In the end, composers who want to hear more than one group’s interpretation of a piece, performers who want to perfect pieces until they are reliably repeatable under the stress of audience attention, promoters who want to put on events that will sell—we have collectively decided for understandable reasons that yes, disposable music is nice, but we’d really prefer to strive towards something more permanent. We’re afraid that, packaged disposably, music, like other comestible arts, might just be destined to turn to trash the next day—and with it, our opinions of ourselves, our abilities, our cultural heritage.
While I admire the investment in recycling, I don’t think it’s necessary to treat music the way we (hope to) treat our plastics. Performers and composers might feel stuck in a double bind here: They’d like to keep moving, always producing fresh works and events, offering their communities a stream of events on the edge of what’s new. (I don’t mean merely newly composed; I mean new to the landscape, which easily includes older, underperformed repertoire.) And yet it’s frustrating to get only one shot at a performance.
There are certainly those out there committed to experimental music and live manipulation of unrepeatable phenomena, but this is a minority aesthetic and remains unintegrated into the standard concert experience. One can find it in the new sounds of folks like Tim Feeney and Annie Lewandowsi, as well as in the fresh interpretation of ostensible “classics” by Tom Beghin or the resuscitation of no-longer-popular works by Marc André Hamelin. (In a poor, academic-speak imitation of Mike Myers’s “Coffee Talk,” I could throw out a remark here about the ways in which music education writ large reinforces only the most traditional skills of concert production, typically omitting any kind of improvisatory skill. Discuss.) I’ll leave with this thought: Because live presentation so often aspires to the perfection of recorded sound, a renewed commitment to the ephemeral requires a turn away from perfection itself. Does that mean lowering our standards? No, it just means changing them.

Never the Same Twice

“As time went on a dreadful thing happened to him: one thing had become to him as good as another.”
—Karen Blixen (writing as Isak Dinesen), “The Poet” from Seven Gothic Tales (1934), p. 330.

As was probably to be expected, opinions in the punditocracy were all over the map following last week’s announcement that New York City Opera would have to cancel the remainder of its 2013-2014 season unless seven million dollars in funding could be raised by the end of September, as well as the entirety of the 2014-2015 season unless an additional thirteen million were raised by the end of this year. As someone who is always eager to experience something new, I hope that the company will see its way out of this financial impasse and devote itself even more strongly to presenting new operas by American composers—something I wish they had been able to do more of in recent years. (There are no American operas scheduled for the 2013-2014 season.)
But rather than entering this particular extremely overcrowded fray, I’d like to address an issue that was raised by Ned Canty, a pro-opera commenter who chimed in on a well-stated essay by mezzo-soprano Jennifer Rivera featuring a fabulous title (“Giving Money to the Arts Does Not Make You Evil”):

I hope that one day some of the folks who dismiss opera so easily go to one. And if they don’t like it, I hope they go to two or three more. (Nobody goes to see one movie, doesn’t like it, then gives up on all movies. Ace Ventura 2 is not The Godfather. Yet people do this with opera all the time.)


When John Cage was asked what his favorite this was to listen to, he claimed it was an open window.

Canty, I think, hits the nail on the head here when it comes to how people’s misconceptions of experiences inform their judgment. In fact, I’ll go further and say that you could just as easily replace the word “opera” with the words “new music” and find similar, if not worse, misconceptions. Yet of course the irony is that even though no two operas are identical to one another, there definitely is common stylistic ground—especially for operas staged by a specific opera company—that an audience will immediately discern, whereas with “new music” all bets are off, by design. The whole point of “new music” is that it is a new experience. Ideally, it should never be the same twice. Admittedly many ensembles and venues program works that, like the aforementioned opera companies, also have discernible stylistic similarities. But they shouldn’t. What makes attending a premiere performance the most exciting concert event that you can experience is the fact that you don’t know what you are going to hear until the music is played. Which is why it ultimately makes no sense when people claim not to like new music. New music can theoretically be anything from this to this to this. The more it unsettles and challenges your assumptions about what it could be, the more it is “new music”, like this. And, believe it or not, it can even be this!

Indeed, contrary to the assessment made in the Isak Dinesen quote with which I began this essay, getting past one’s own judgments and being completely open and willing to listen to anything, offers the widest range of aesthetic experiences imaginable. And that is the lesson of new music.

It’s Always Now

“It’s always now,” exclaimed Maia McCormick, our summer intern at New Music USA, during a conversation I had with her during her last week with us. (She’s now on a brief vacation with her family and then will be heading back to school.)
“That’s both incredibly obvious and extremely poignant,” I retorted.

“Mind if I steal this for an essay?”
“Sure,” she said.
So here goes…

All of us, not just those of us who are involved with music, waste so much time dwelling on the past as well as trying to predict what the future is, when in fact, the only thing we can really affect is the present. In that sense visual art, such as paintings and sculptures, might be the most effective artistic medium since they can be experienced all at once and the reality of the perpetual present is never lost in the process. While it’s true that the longer you look at something the more details you potentially will become cognizant of (and hopefully appreciative of), it’s all there for you to interact with as quickly or as slowly as you desire. Well, not completely. Having been ushered out of a museum at closing time while not sufficiently sated with looking at a painting is something some of you might have experienced. Most of the time I look at art works in a museum all too quickly, fearing that if I don’t, I won’t be able to see everything there. This is especially the case when I travel, since who knows when or if I’ll ever get to visit that museum again.

Music, on the other hand, carries with it is a constant reminder of the past and the future, since music needs to be mentally processed temporally on its own clock. If we were to listen to a piece of music faster than it is meant to occur—and admittedly recordings of performances can be sped up—we would obviously not be getting the same experience as listening to the music at its intended speed. Similarly, if we slowed it down it would also be completely different. The various experiments from a few years back of slowing down Beethoven symphonies and various Top 40 pop songs inspired new pieces of music, not new ways of hearing pre-existing ones.

Requisite time allotment is not the exclusive domain of music. All the performing arts—dance, theatre, mime, etc.—require audiences to follow someone else’s clock as does cinema. But poetry and prose fiction exist in a realm that is something of a middle ground between the way we take in the visual and the performing arts. While we cannot read a poem or a novel all at once, we turn the pages at our own pace and can constantly reread a baffling or favorite sentence again and again before moving on, or jump to the end and spoil the plot if we are too impatient. Although there have been intentional disruptions to the arbitrary directedness of the literary line for centuries (such disparate phenomena as acrostic poetry, Laurence Sterne’s antinovel The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman or even Medieval illuminated manuscripts and the Talmud immediately come to mind), non-linear literature has mostly remained a somewhat arcane endeavor.


An “excerpt” from Dan Waber and Jason Pimble’s hypertext I, You, We. Reprinted in accordance with their Creative Commons license.

Much to my delight I recently stumbled upon Dan Waber and Jason Pimble’s 2005 hypertext I, You, We which presents a fascinating alterative to a static text that is meant to be read in one direction; in it, words are constantly moving (though they can be stopped or shifted in direction via clicking and dragging) but they ultimately go nowhere. Yet this text does not completely abandon meaning—all of the words that race across the screen are comprehensible to anyone fluent in the English language. Such a piece of verbal art aspires to the condition of music. However, it most clearly resembles music that eschews functional tonality, since any music with a developed syntax of functionality would need to have a clear beginning as well as a resolved ending.

What if there could be a piece of music that was equally open-ended and still meant something to listeners? I’m reminded again of some of the more recent compositions of John Luther Adams such as the outdoor percussion extravaganza Inuksuit which it is impossible to hear all of, or the sound installation The Place Where You Go To Listen in which every pitch and rhythmic element carries a great deal of meaning, yet it continually morphs based on the weather patterns of the day. Might these sorts of musical structures more accurately reflect a world in which the past and the future are mental constructs and the only thing that is really tangible is the here and now?

Laterna Magica


Magda Giannikou cranks the laterna

Last Thursday, the weather finally cooled down, so I ventured outside for a triple bill at the Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors Festival to hear the otherworldly Ukrainian singer Mariana Sadovska perform her eerie cantata Chernobyl – The Harvest backed by the Kronos Quartet, followed by singer/songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Emily Wells, and finally Shara Worden’s uncategorizable My Brightest Diamond. In between sets, I rummaged through the program and saw a listing for a performance the following night involving a rare Greek musical instrument called the laterna. According to the notes, it is “a small, portable, hand-cranked piano with a wooden cylinder spiked with thousands of nails, each representing a musical note.” Wow! I had to come back on Friday, and so I did.
In the interim I googled laterna. I found a short audio clip on YouTube which gave me some idea of what the instrument sounds like, but no video alas. I also discovered a whole website devoted to the laterna in Greek and English, but most of the navigation only works on the pages in Greek. Then I looked up the player for the Lincoln Center gig, Magda Giannikou. Again, not much to go on internet-wise—the Lincoln Center Out-Of-Doors page about her (which contained the same info in my hand-printed program), a placeholder for an as yet to be launched website for her band, Banda Magda, and a MySpace (yes, MySpace!) page. So I listened on MySpace for a while and was particularly intrigued by a song called ”Mystery.” After hearing the minute-long snippets for four of her songs, none of which featured a laterna as far as I could hear, I was asked by a MySpace bot for all my Facebook information, so I left the site. For all the claims people make about the web being the easiest way to experience music, live still wins.

Anyway, experiencing a live laterna performance turned out to be more fascinating than just hearing it or seeing a photo of it; at least it was for me. A crowd huddled around Magda Giannikou, seemingly hanging on every note, as she spun a lever on a very fragile hand painted wooden box which was propped up somewhat precariously on wooden legs. It seemed perilously close to falling down several times during her set and probably would have were it not for someone holding it up for her. Everyone applauded her rapturously, but were they applauding her performance or the instrument or both? A performance on a laterna is really not the same as a performance on, say, a violin or a guitar, since it is preset like that of a player piano or a music box. And the cylinder inside the laterna, which is what triggers the nails and makes them sound out, only has room to hold a total of nine short pieces of music—a rather limited repertoire which in this case consisted of traditional Greek folk songs. Performing on the laterna means merely turning the crank, which presumably affects tempo, but still all of the pitches and basic rhythmic relationship have already been predetermined. Perhaps everyone was amazed that it was possible to get sound out of such a rickety antique. I have no intention of undervaluing Giannikou’s contribution to this event; I clapped as vigorously as everyone else there. She was graceful and engaging throughout; she actually had a stage presence that was as confident as someone who was playing an instrument that required prodigious technique. At one point she even sang along with the laterna and she has a very intriguing voice.

Here’s a brief video excerpt from the performance, recorded on my smartphone, which I post here with Magda Giannikou’s approval.

Truly magical, I think, but it still begs the question: where does mechanical manipulation end and musical performance begin? During the heyday of the laterna in the late 19th and early 20th century, musical instruments were gradually being supplanted by gramophones and radios in most households. It was the beginning of on-demand home listening, a cultural phenomenon that drastically reduced the amount of amateur at-home music making. No less a musical celebrity than John Philip Sousa denounced pre-recorded music, which he called “canned music,” both on aesthetic as well as financial grounds. A century later, however, we realize that machines designed to reproduce music can also be messed with to create brand new music—e.g. turntable scratching, glitch, etc. Also instruments that people once thought anything could be played on, e.g. the piano, proved to be finite as well. An un-retuned piano can only play music in 12-tone equal temperament and even when it is re-tuned you are still limited by the finite number of keys as well as having only 10 fingers. Strangely, Conlon Nancarrow’s original music for pre-punched player piano rolls (a device which originally limited what a piano could play) showed us all kinds of amazing music that human pianists will never be able to play. Could similar experimentation be possible on the laterna?

The Past, The Present, and The Future

It’s relatively quiet here at my desk in New York City today, but the past seven days have been anything but. If you recall, last week at this time I was on my way to St. Louis for the 2013 conference of the League of American Orchestras. Bad weather conditions at both Newark and St. Louis slowed down my arrival a bit, but I still managed to cram quite a bit of activity into the 41 hours I got to spend in The Lou. Aside from being a city with a fabulous orchestra and an acoustically marvelous (as well as extremely opulent) concert hall, it also boasts the highest Zagat rated BBQ in the entire USA (tasty and worth the sweltering mile-long walk past the national headquarters for both Tums—symbolic?—and Purina), a baseball team with the 2nd best track record for winning the World Series (though that’s a term that has always irked me since only American and Canadian teams compete), and being only an hour away from the nation’s very first designated American Viticultural Area. (I had no time to trek there, but I did scope out a bottle of Augusta wine at a grocer five blocks away from the conference hotel.) And let’s not forget that Arch, which turns 50 next year and which I could see directly outside the window of my hotel room at the Hyatt Regency where the majority of the League’s conference sessions, as well as the exhibition room, were located.


One of St. Louis’s greatest gifts to the world, especially after BBQ!

Sadly due to my subsequent journey to Dublin (on that more shortly), I had to miss most of the conference, which lasted from June 18 until June 20, but I did manage to glean quite a bit of information from what I did experience of it. The opening session at Powell Hall, “Imagining 2023,” featured a riveting performance by the St. Louis Symphony Youth Orchestra (conducted by David Robertson) of Ingram Marshall’s mesmerizing Kingdom Come, followed by a series of speeches and the presentation of the Gold Baton Awards. (There was apparently no time to officially announce the winners of the 2013 Adventurous Programming awards, which in past years had been co-presented with ASCAP during the conference. This year they were instead announced online on June 18, and we published the full report.)
It was great to hear Gold Baton honoree Don Randel, president emeritus of The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, address why we must do more to encourage music and resist the overwhelming saturation from sports in our society. I’ve long believed that while both activities show the importance of group activity, there is something pernicious about the sports paradigm where there must be losers in order to have winners whereas in a musical performance everybody wins.


League of American Orchestras President and CEO Jesse Rosen unveils another way of attracting new audiences to the concert hall–the “I Love Orchestras” tattoo!

I was also very glad I was able to hear the keynote address by Elizabeth Merritt, the founding director of the Center for the Future of Museums. I was particularly fascinated by how she delineated two “possible futures” for orchestras from what she described as a “cone of plausibility.” In the first possible future scenario, which she called “fragmentation,” orchestras basically continue along the exact same path they’ve been on and their audience continues to shrink. The second scenario, which she labeled “ubiquity,” has orchestras involved in a variety of functions which they have traditionally not been associated with including a great deal of interactive educational initiatives, many of which will be online. To further her arguments that everything is moving online and to ignore that reality is tantamount to organizational suicide even right now, Merritt cited a statistic that claimed there are 2.4 billion current internet users worldwide. Although if Geohive’s data is to be believed, there are more than 7.1 billion people on the planet as of yesterday, which means that less than 34% of the world is currently online. So much as I share her zeal for online communication (otherwise why would I be writing these words here), I remain suspicious of the notion that the web could ever somehow magically reach everyone nor do I think that anything could or even should reach everyone. I also took exception to her implication that non-participatory activities are somehow authoritarian, since I believe that if we are incapable of attentively listening to one another, a skill that listening to music instills, we will ultimately fall prey to authoritarianism.


Even the lobby of St. Louis’s 1924 Powell Hall is regal.

A couple of hours later, Robertson was back on the stage at Powell Hall leading the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra in a program he proudly proclaimed spanned four centuries, stating in an on-stage comment in between pieces that “we all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.” But while the orchestra sounded equally convincing in performances of overtures and arias (for which the orchestra was joined by bass/baritone Eric Owens) by Mozart (18th) and Wagner (19th) as well as symphonies by Sibelius (20th!) and John Adams (21st), there was something that felt very un-21st century about this collection of repertoire—it was exclusively composed by white men, three of whom were dead Europeans. As a composer in the 21st century, I know that I “stand on the shoulders” of creators of both genders from all over the world. Despite my heretofore stated belief in the sanctity of the non-participatory listening experience, I guess that puts me in the “ubiquity” camp.
The following morning I put my philosophy about inclusive repertoire into action during the session I moderated called “New Music: Opportunities to Broaden Audiences.” It was easy to do with the group of panelists who sat with me. Robert Franz, music director of the Boise Philharmonic, spoke of the great success the orchestra had back in November 2012 with a concert pairing The Rite of Spring (which had never been previously performed in Boise) and Sacred Land, a brand new work (though his fourth commission from the orchestra) by local composer Jim Cockey that was inspired by the Shoshone and Bannock tribes. Chicago Sinfonietta Executive Director Jim Hirsch spoke about the orchestra’s recent Chi-scape project which, under the stewardship of Jennifer Higdon, presented music inspired by Chicago architecture written by an extremely diverse group of composers—Armando Bayolo, Vivian Fung, Jonathan Bailey Holland, and Chris Rogerson. Finally, Jazz St. Louis Executive Director Gene Dobbs Bradford and Tim O’Leary, general director of Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, talked about how these two local organizations worked together on Terence Blanchard’s first opera, Champion, which was being staged in St. Louis the week of the conference. The opera is inspired by the life story of Emile Griffith, an African-American boxer who accidently killed his opponent during the welterweight world championship in 1962 and who—thirty years later—was viciously beaten and almost killed in a homophobic attack. While new music does not represent the majority of the programming of any of these organizations (during the Q&A period one of them exclaimed that I must really not like dead people when I pointed this out), it was abundantly clear that it was the programs which included new works that garnered the most excitement from the communities in which they were based and that it is new music that is most likely to attract new audiences to the concert hall.

There were many additional sessions during the conference that focused specifically on new music, including a conversation between David Robertson and Jesse Rosen, the League’s president and CEO, called “New Music from Here to 2023,” and a talk moderated by Norman Ryan, vice president of Schott Music Corporation, called “Learning from New Ensembles.” But I had to rush to the airport in order to participate in another panel discussion the following morning in Dublin which was part of a day-long conference called “The Future of Music in the Digital World 2” organized by the Contemporary Music Centre of Ireland. Although my session in St. Louis ended at 10:15 a.m. on Wednesday and the session in Dublin didn’t begin until 10:00 a.m. on Thursday, thanks to time zone differences I actually had only 17 hours and 45 minutes to get from door to door. I almost missed my connection due to the wide separation between the domestic and international terminals at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport and a glacially slow security line. But then I got lucky, because although I just barely arrived at the gate in time for my departure, the plane arrived in Dublin half an hour early, which actually allowed me to check in to my hotel and even take a shower!


At a local Dublin bookstore, first editions of James Joyce’s Ulysses and Finnegans Wake are proudly on display. If only we were as proud of our own writers. Then again, if only the Irish were as proud of their composers as they are of their writers!

I must point out that I was pleasantly surprised to notice quite a bit of American repertoire on the Aer Lingus flight I was on. There were a total of 8 CDs in the classical section that were devoted to music by American composers, including two discs of music by Eric Whitacre as well as Steve Reich’s Double Sextet, Hilary Hahn performing the Ives violin sonatas, and Arnold Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 4 (a twelve-tone piece he wrote in Hollywood). Admittedly 8 out of a total of 101 CDs to choose from amounts to pretty slim pickings, but it’s better than nothing. There were no discs featuring Irish composers, which I found outrageous from an Irish airline flying to Ireland. The jazz choices were also solid—not just classics like Mingus Ah Um and Sonny Rollins’s Saxophone Colossus, but also discs by Philadelphia-based pianist Orrin Evans, superstar Esperanza Spaulding, and Pat Metheny’s wild Orchestrion project (which I finally got a chance to hear as a result). The alternative rock selections ranged from some fascinating albums like Dirty Projectors’ Bitter Orca and Grizzly Bear’s Veckatimest to some odd choices—how are Ozzy Osbourne and John Cougar Mellencamp alternative? (On the United Airlines flight back home Sunday there were only 24 CDs in the classical section, none featuring American or Irish composers, and no Alternative Rock section at all. Home sweet home, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)


The secret to my staying awake after all that traveling is the strong and very appropriately named Insomnia coffee.

The conference in Dublin offered a fascinating range of perspectives including Steve Lawson, from New Music Strategies, who claimed that no musician “should feel entitled to earn a living” to singer/songwriter Julie Feeney, who talked about the precarious tight rope she has walked balancing creating truly innovative music (songs that are very densely orchestrated, sometimes featuring her playing all of the various instruments) and eking out an income in the precarious economic environment that most musicians are in these days. Nick Sherrard, from Sound and Music (which is sort of the U.K.’s version of New Music USA), captivated just about everyone in the audience at The Carolan Room of Dublin’s National Concert Hall (jetlagged me included), with his description of the Minute of Listening project which provides a minute-long sound file for primary school children to listen to each day of the year. Representatives from various digital archives such as Breandán Knowlton of Europeana, Sandra Collins from the Digital Repository of Ireland, and Malachy Moran of the RTÉ , offered information about their services which will probably take me years to surf through. In the afternoon, Lawson co-led a two-hour participatory workshop about digital connectivity with his New Music Strategies colleague Andrew Dubber, the author of many provocative and often brilliant essays (including this one). Once again, he didn’t disappoint, at one point describing futurists as “astrologers” and social media experts as “snake oil salesmen.”

On Friday, I was shepherded around the city to listen to various performances during National Music Day. I caught the tail end of an ethereal performance by the National Chamber Choir of Ireland in Dublin’s General Post Office, a pop-up action that was not announced to the general public in advance. Then I wandered around town trying to find a tiny venue on an elusive street (although Dublin is relatively small, the similarity in some street names can be confusing) eventually catching part of a short concert devoted to electronic music by Gráinne Mulvey, some of which featured a live performance by soprano Elizabeth Hilliard accompanied by pre-recorded sound. Later in the day, Uilleann piper Mark Redmond was joined on the organ by composer/arranger David Bremner in a series of duets for this unlikely yet totally convincing combination at Christ Church Cathedral. But my personal favorite was probably another pop-up event, “Sun Ra Lives,” featuring the idiomatically otherworldly interpretations of OuterSpaceways Inc. and the people of Dublin who joined in on bongos and other sound producing devices as costumed musicians marched around alternately swinging and wigging out.

Sun Ra

Channeling Sun Ra in Dublin

Saturday I was on my own during the morning so I wandered into several museums, seeing everything from an exhibition of artifacts belonging to the poet William Butler Yeats (at the National Library) to a group of millenia-old corpses that were discovered in bogs (which apparently are even more effective at preservation than mummification). It was majestic yet somehow horrific. Quite a way to end a week of discussion focused on how to shape the future while still holding on to things we cherish from the past and present.

Paid & Displayed

Then again, there are some things that I saw this past week that I still don’t completely understand.