Tag: music distribution

We Are Sitting In (Another) Room: Improv with Architecture

Pea Soup To Go
Today marks the 40th anniversary of Nicolas Collins’s Pea Soup, a piece that uses electronics to “play” the signature acoustics of a space. In honor of that milestone, Collins today unveils Pea Soup To Go, a free virtual jukebox programed with recordings of 70 different versions of the work, iterations which span decades and continents.

Since the composition relies on linked microphones and loudspeakers in a “self-stabilizing feedback network” to map and respond to changes in the room and produce the sonic content featured in the piece, it might just be one of the purest forms of ambient music available. The jukebox shuffles the various collected recordings, masking transitions between each with long crossfades, allowing listeners to dip into this historic stock pot and feast until they are full.


Molly Sheridan: How do you tend to explain this piece to people who haven’t yet heard it, especially those without a great deal of technical background?

Nicolas Collins: Technically it’s pretty simple. Everybody seems to have heard the squeal of feedback at some point, and most are familiar with the fact that moving the microphone (or electric guitar) usually changes the pitch of the feedback. I explain that the phase shifter (the electronic gizmo at the heart of the piece) emulates a hand moving the mike every time the feedback starts to swell. The piece has a sufficiently dreamy, non-threatening quality that most people don’t worry too much about the how and why.

MS: And that idea led you to the title Pea Soup?

NC: The immersive quality of the sound field brought to mind the cliché of a fog “as thick as pea soup.” Rather silly, in retrospect, but I was pretty young and now I’m stuck with it.

MS: While reading up on the history of Pea Soup, I was surprised to discover that the work can involve (or always does?) live musicians. This was something I didn’t quite pick out in the first few iterations of the piece I heard via the jukebox. They are charged with interacting with the electronics (or later the software) in some specific ways. Can you explain why you prescribe their actions in the way that you do? And then this of course made me curious about the impact of the audience in the space and therefore on thework itself.

NC: Left to its own devices the Pea Soup feedback network creates simple, languid melodies whose pitches are derived from the resonant frequencies of the room (and the tempo reflects the reverberation time–larger rooms play slower tunes.) A small change in the room acoustics can cause a pitch to be added to or dropped from the melody, like some slow hocket music. I ask performers to “play” the acoustics by walking around the room, since interfering with the reflecting paths of the feedback often causes a change in the patterns. They play notes as well: playing a unison with a feedback pitch, then bending slightly out of tune, can stop the feedback; playing an octave or fifth above a feedback pitch can cause the feedback to break to the upper interval; and introducing a pitch that hasn’t been heard in the feedback from several minutes often brings it back into the melodic pattern.
Audience sounds and movement obviously influence the patterns as well–a performance in a noisy bar unfolds very differently than in a quiet, formal concert hall. I’ve also installed the work in gallery settings, where interaction with the audience becomes central.

In performance I usually let the feedback system stabilize for a few minutes, as a sort of alap introducing the scale of the room, before the players start. The web app (Pea Soup To Go) shuffles a library of around 70 performance recordings, with long fade-ins and fade-outs. The sequence is random (or as close as I can get), as is the selection of in- and out-points for each file, so the recordings always start at different times–sometimes one drops right in on a musician’s sounds, but sometimes you have to wait a few minutes to hear a player. Plus the players are instructed to play “inside” the feedback texture, rather than soloing on top, so it’s not always easy to distinguish the instrumental voices.
countryman phase shifter
MS: Okay, now for the gear snobs in the crowd, this piece offers some interesting insights into the punishment time can dish out on work that involves specific electronic components that can break down and become obsolete. This led you to some particular extremes—I especially loved the correspondence you exchanged with Carl Countryman, the maker of the phase shifter you originally employed in the piece. Can you tell us a bit about that evolution and how it affected the work?

NC: This will make me sound even older than I am, but back in 1974 there were no digital delays (or at least no affordable ones). The studio at Wesleyan had three Countryman Phase Shifters that Alvin Lucier had bought to do what’s called “Haas-effect Panning,” which is a way to pan sounds quite realistically using very short time delays. I had been working a lot with feedback, and discovered that changing the phase shifter’s delay setting could emulate moving a mike, opening up a whole new vista of quasi-automated feedback manipulation. Pea Soup emerged as one of the major products of my undergraduate education.
After college I moved on to other materials and technologies (early microcomputer music, live sampling and signal processing, collaboration with improvisers.) But I’d return to feedback from time to time, and when, through my day job in New York, I ran into Carl Countryman at trade shows I’d always ask if he had any of the Phase Shifters back at his warehouse. By the 1980s he was making very popular high-quality Direct Boxes and lavaliere microphones, and the phase shifters were long gone and, it seems, not missed–his answer was always “no.”

Then in the late 1990s I was in Berlin with a DAAD fellowship, and an ensemble with which I was working (Kammernesemble Neue Musik Berlin) asked if they could revive Pea Soup. At first I tried to reconstruct the original analog circuit. I emailed Mr. Countryman, who obviously still remembered my unwanted nagging, and he sent me the schematic with the explicit understanding that I was never to bother him about this device again. The circuit is not complicated, but it has one odd custom-made part that was difficult to duplicate. I did a few performances with my best attempt in the analog domain, but after a few years I wrote a software emulation of the original analog boxes that, with enough code tweaking, evolved into a pretty convincing substitute.

Software has allowed me to add a few features that would have been great to have back in 1974 but were out of reach then (such as a filter that automatically nulls pitches that would otherwise dominant in the texture.) Programs are not as cute as little metal boxes, but they’re lighter and can be distributed more freely, like old-fashioned paper scores: I’ve posted the program on my web site, where anyone who’s interested can download it and perform Pea Soup without the need fly in Nic and his gear.
Pea Soup software
MS: How does the experience of Pea Soup via this clever website relate the performance experience of hearing it live for you?

NC: In a big space with big speakers Pea Soup can be a very immersive and interactive experience—“church of sound,” as one friend once called it. The web app (Pea Soup To Go) is obviously more like listening to a recording of a concert than experiencing a live event, but this is a record that never ends, never repeats—a multi-disk CD changer in “shuffle mode” with a twist: the long crossfades knit the 70 files into one continuous performance. Since every room is in a different, architecturally determined “key,” you end up hearing a series of odd, vaguely modal chord changes that stretch out over an almost glacial time scale.

MS: Even before I started reading the background on Pea Soup, I kept thinking of Cage and Lucier associations related to “hearing” a space–using a space and its contents as so essential to the end sonic result. Do you hear this piece as in that evolutionary line? In what ways does it intersect and/or diverge?

NC: Yes, it certainly is in that line. I was a young, impressionable student of Lucier’s at the time I made Pea Soup. I was drawn to feedback under the twin influences of Lucier and Cage. I loved Lucier’s extraction of musical material from fundamental acoustical phenomena (think of Vespers and I Am Sitting In A Room). My parents were both architectural historians, and the link between music and architecture was critical to my finding a comfortable place to work. And feedback became the solution to my Cage-induced ambivalence about making personal musical decisions in a world where all sounds could be “musical sounds”: turn up the volume and let nature/god/architects do the rest—a sort of acoustical I Ching.

Divergence? I think my generation of musicians and composers is (and always was) much more comfortable with the idea of improvisation than our teachers were: Cage hated it; Lucier kept trying to come up with other words to describe it. In Pea Soup and most of my other work I embrace improvisation, I hand a lot of responsibility off to my players, and live with the consequences.

I also see each musical generation incorporating a new generation of technology. My peers and I embraced synthesizers, effect boxes, homemade circuitry, computers. And technological shifts often beget stylistic changes – some modest, some significant. There’s a certain kind of technological interactivity that I believe is, for better or for worse, the gift of my generation of experimental music composers.

MS: Even though this was originally a student piece, you note that the lessons of architectural acoustics have continued to engage you, making this piece of ongoing interest even 40 years later. What have some of those lessons been?

NC: I still have difficulty making certain musical decisions, and I often return to acoustics to clarify the edges or underpinnings of a piece. In the end no sound gets to the ear without engaging with acoustics, and the physical reality of sound keeps me grounded. There’s a certain primordial consonance or orderliness or reassuring “rightness” in it, that I find helpful when I’m feeling lost.
roomtone variations
Recently, while tweaking the software for Pea Soup, I discovered a simple way of mapping the resonant frequencies of a room to conventional music notation. I’ve written a piece (Roomtone Variations) that uses this technique to create a site-specific score for any concert space, in real time, in the presence of the audience. The score is projected on a screen for all to see as it unfolds, and after the analytical intro (which takes about two minutes) an ensemble performs purely acoustic variations on this “architectural tone row” – a kind of “Pea Soup Unplugged.”

Another new piece, Speak, Memory, uses room reverberation as short-term memory for image files and sound bites. In the course of the performance I display the transformation of the original pictures and sounds as they are “forgotten” by the room. (I hope to include both these pieces on my first concert in New York in many years, at Roulette on March 9.)

You could look at this obsession in one of two ways, I suppose: either I am somewhat pathetic for, at the age of 60, still being hung up on my first true love from age 20; or it’s a sign of deep commitment to one’s fundamental beliefs. Take your choice.

Visual Enhancements

Over the past week, I’ve been acclimating myself to the great green north again as I begin my third summer teaching composition at the Interlochen Summer Arts Camp in Interlochen, Michigan. Not only does this adventure give me the opportunity to advise some very talented students and collaborate with many top-notch performers from around the country, but I get to work with several composer colleagues who never fail to inspire. Whether it’s a discussion over plastic trays laden with that day’s lunch, a presentation to the studio in our Composition Techniques class, or late-night musings over IPAs and bourbon, these interactions are a never-ending source of provoked thought, re-evaluation, and outright discovery.

One perfect example of this occurred earlier this week when the four composition faculty—returning veteran Robert Brownlow, first-year faculty N. Lincoln Hanks and Jonathan Newman, and myself—presented examples of our own work to our studio of 18 student composers. Newman, with a bit o’ flair for the dramatic, concluded our presentation with a brief but very effective demonstration of how the combination of a quality recording and basic video technology (i.e. iMovie) can be used to introduce a new work to conductors, performers, and gobsmacked campers.

Score video of Blow It Up, Start Again by Jonathan Newman, performed by the Florida State University Wind Orchestra under the direction of Richard Clary

Newman explained later that he had been inspired by the jazz composer Tim Davies, who had created several score videos for his big band works (see below), and decided that it could be a useful and eye-catching tool to generate interest in his newly transcribed piece. (Blow It Up, Start Again was originally written for the Chicago Youth Symphony Orchestra in 2011 and transcribed for wind ensemble the following year.) Davies’s Quicktime videos are more simplistic, displaying the full pages as the recording plays along, but they are also still very effective.

Score video of Counting to Infinity by Tim Davies, performed by the Tim Davies Big Band

Each of these videos allow the viewer to digest the music they’re hearing in different ways. Davies’s videos let the eye meander over the entire score page with little attention to detail, since the image is relatively small. Newman, on the other hand, only shows you what he wants to show you but in much greater detail. In both instances, however, it’s difficult to not be affected by the video as you listen to the music. The visual stimulation is strong for those who can read the scores, and aspects of the pieces that may have been glossed over in a purely aural setting are sharply enhanced.

Neither of the videos mentioned above are intended to be part of the artistic presentation; they were made primarily with the hope that conductors and performers would enjoy the work enough to purchase and perform it. Of course, these aren’t the only examples of composers using video to enhance their music. The incorporation of video as part of the creative process is slowly becoming a new and important aspect of new music in general. From Michel Van der Aa’s groundbreaking work, including his Grawemeyer Prize-winning cello concerto Up-Close and his new 3D film-opera Sunken Garden, to Eric Whitacre’s Virtual Choir projects which incorporate social media and crowdsourcing concepts to an extent that could not have been imagined only ten years ago, composers are exploring how video can be used in the creation, performance, and dissemination of their music. As technology becomes even more pliant and simple to use, we’re only going to see more innovations in this area in the years ahead.

Business As Usual

The words “happy new year” have been on the lips of many folks over the last two weeks. People the world over are apparently habituated to wishing others better luck during the next circumduction of the terrestrial orb we inhabit, ostensibly to counterbalance feelings of disconsolation about the previous one. I’ve never thought much about this time of year, other than whether or not to pursue working on December 31; but, since I found myself composing this column on January 2 (and into January 3), I felt compelled to probe into the question of why January 1 is the circumscribed default reset for so many aspects of our lives. To be circumspect, the results of my reconnaissance have given me an understanding of the painful historical circumstance behind the circumvection of our circumundulating wishes circumvallating the date. Although it’s merely a matter of tradition and ritual, as a practitioner of American improvised music, I might switch my personal reset date to March 25.
A personal tradition of mine is to reflect on previous posts on NMBx (especially my own) to circumstantiate the discussion of a current topic. I would like to repeat the ritual by referring to David Liebman’s eulogy of drummer-composer-lawyer Pete “La Roca” Simms from November 30. In that post, I made note of how Liebman hadn’t examined La Roca’s track record in the world of law. He did, however, scrutinize an important and on-going development in the American music industry: the shift of jazz pedagogy from its traditional paradigm of mentor-apprentice in a subaltern community to one of affiliation with a mainstream academic institution. Although the traditional relationship is still in play, it now is ever-increasingly inclusive of an educational institution regularly employing the mentor. While this development has good and bad sides—intensive and comprehensive study of canon (“good”) versus lack of analysis of canon suited to individual strengths and tastes (“bad”), I’d like to look at a few ways the paradigm shift brings the two cultures of the jazz community and the jazz academy into conflict and, hopefully, resolution. I’ll start by describing an example of cross-disciplinary conflict from (1) inside the music’s pedagogical milieu and (2) one from outside of it.

(1) A few months ago, an enterprising student of jazz studies posted on a message board what was intended as helpful advice to other students for researching movies and television shows that impact their analyses of soundtracks and how jazz musicians are portrayed visually, since not all graduate students, especially those working nights, have the time or resources to go to movies or record television shows. The student found an app which allows one to watch, but not download, them for free and on demand over the internet. (I’ve tried it and, although it’s not perfect, it works.) But another student took umbrage with the idea of not paying a fee for access to cable TV or going to a movie, insisting that denying profit to their distribution network is tantamount to bootlegging. There was a rather heated exchange that lasted several weeks and attracted protracted arguments from other students that included rather personal slights on the character of the student making the original post. Fortunately, the inappropriateness of the extreme invective was eloquently addressed by its recipient and the thread died out. I assume that a professor also dealt with the matter during a classroom lecture.

(2) I recently performed with pianist Sarah Jane Cion, which was mentioned in a previous post. (In response to one comment: it was a success, although the turnout could have been better.) Cion is married to one of today’s finest bassists, Phil Palombi (I’m pretty sure I’m his sub), and her music is particularly challenging for the bass, so rehearsal is a necessity. One of the cool things about rehearsing with Sarah is that I get to hang out with her kids (who are gangs of fun) and Phil. We rehearsed twice: on the Monday before and the afternoon of the concert. At the first rehearsal, Phil told me he was going to be performing with pianist Don Friedman at the Miami Jazz Festival and we naturally expressed our mutual regret that we’d miss each other’s performances. At the second rehearsal, during a break for coffee and magic tricks (their daughter is prestidigitating these days), a fellow who had been raking leaves in their back yard came into the kitchen. When he pulled back his hoodie, I saw that it was Phil. Thinking that he was going to change and go to the airport, I started to ask, “Did you guys drive back here when you saw the sign marked ‘Washington, D.C.’?” But he beat me to the punch and told me that the festival had been cancelled on 36 hours notice and now he was doing baby-sitter duties. It seems that the presenter of the concert hadn’t seen enough advance ticket sales and pulled the plug on the event. Of course, there would be lots of haggling to pay the contracted artists pennies-on-the-dollar while, in the meantime, sidemen like Phil would have to wait for the money they planned to bring home.

The most obvious conflict is in example (1): that watching videos posted on the internet is not illegal, while the so-called “unauthorized” downloading of them (which is considered a form of bootlegging) is. I used quotation marks because the internet has rendered the concept of authority somewhat ambiguous. Once upon a time, the publisher of sheet music was the authority. Later it was the company that recorded and distributed the music. Authority is now shifting to whoever can stream a sound file, but rarely were, and are, these concerns inclusive of the artists’ wishes. (More than once I have unsuccessfully tried to get YouTube videos that include my image-and-likeness and that I never “authorized” taken off of their website.) Another aspect of conflict arose when a student posted how fortunate it is that “successful” artists, like one whose performances are readily available for free on YouTube, get enough money from sales to act philanthropically toward Hurricane Sandy relief (a reference which didn’t include anyone performing at the Jazz for Hurricane Sandy Relief concert), yet watching free videos on the internet fosters trickle-down opportunism that exacerbates the suffering of humanity. I was reminded of my NewMusicBox debut in an issue examining the topic of major vs. independent labels. In that edition, pianist-composer-educator-mentor-producer-presenter Connie Crothers took off the emperor’s clothes of CD sales in the music industry.

When considering whether to record for a commercial record company or form your own, any musician might consider that any commercial release is paid for entirely by the musician. As good as it gets is an advance on royalties. Then, after the record company has recouped its production costs, the musician can receive, perhaps, 10% of any money that comes in from sales, providing that the company is honest. Besides that, unless you lease your music, the record company owns it. They can take it out of print. They can refuse to release it at all. When you own your own production, you have creative control, and you can get 100% of the money that comes in. The major problem, of course, is distribution.

An essential element in the distribution of cultural artifacts like movies and CDs is advertising. In When the Music Stops (a. k. a. Who Killed Classical Music), Norman Lebrecht describes how the Franz Liszt mythos was promulgated by an advance-man who arrived in a city days or weeks before Liszt to tell anyone he would meet about the pianistic phenomenon’s impending performance. (It’s no news that Richard Wagner shared his father-in-law’s propensity for shameless self-promotion.) Today, an effective way to promote one’s work is to make some of your music available for free. This practice has heavily impacted how American music is disseminated along the information highway as artists use the internet as the advance-man. Saxophonist-composer-educator-philosopher-producer-independent scholar Steve Coleman has been doing this for decades (in fact, most of Coleman’s listed self-produced output is available for free), while drummer-composer-educator-philosopher-mentor Marvin “Bugalu” Smith takes the approach to another level: he and his entourage of students will bring a mobile recording unit (24-track with video) to wherever he performs, record it, and then put it up on YouTube. Occasionally a problem can arise with unsuspecting sidemen, as in the case when I hadn’t been informed of Bugalu’s methodology beforehand and blocked the recording. (The music was so powerful, though, that I wish I hadn’t.) While this practice might seem intuitively counterproductive from the point of view of a paradigm that places ultimate value on profit margins, it is important to state that music and the creation of artifact are practices that predate the concept of profit and that their intrinsic value is found in their reception.
This modern concept of profit created the conflict of example (2) when the presenter eschewed the burden of risk that is a traditional part of the entrepreneurial role. According to one source, the presenter’s trepidation was due to his own bad planning. Instead of choosing a modest venue that could be sold out, one was chosen that seated almost 20 times the advance sales, which were low due to inadequate publicity. Another factor is that the festival would have arrived on the heels of the controversial Miami Nice Jazz Festival held at the end of October. Although I don’t know what the costs of the hall associated with the defunct festival were, I know the artists are demanding their fees and are prepared to take him to court to get them. There was a possibility that the advance ticket sales would have been matched at the door and that the artists might have returned some of their fees in support of the “failed” event (I’m thinking that an event that happens hasn’t really failed) and that the losses would have been nominal. But even if the artists settled for pennies on the dollar and the money saved from the rental of the venue and whatever airline tickets had yet to be booked balance out the deposit on the venue, the idea of another Miami Jazz Festival has been tainted. Hopefully lessons were learned and next year’s Miami Jazz Festival won’t fail, but the cross-disciplinary conflict between presenter and artist, one that would deny the artist his or her promised income and the presenter with reasonably cut losses, is a tradition of the American music-industry paradigm and one that has made it difficult, if not impossible, for an artist to succeed based on his or her talent alone. The culture of adversarialism that has become rooted in our culture to the point that embezzling the retirement accounts of the elderly has become honorable has infected the music industry in ways that are legendary. The nearly ubiquitous practice of misappropriating the authorship of music is the tip of a gargantuan music-culture iceberg.

I believe that reception is at the heart of the issue of these examples. How audiences receive a movie or a musical performance is an expression of cultural stratification. Whether or not we feel that direct sales of their works is more ethical than viewing them second-hand for little or no cash outlay has a lot to do with how we’re raised. My own experience was of a middle-class (as defined in the 1960s) upbringing that, due to an automobile accident, changed to living on the government dole in the ‘70s. During that time, I went from movies and concerts and nights-on-the-town to food stamps and Medicaid and scheduled trips to soup kitchens. I find nothing wrong with getting one’s music wherever, whenever, and however one can, as long as the primary concern is to hear the music. It’s when the primary goal is to be cheap about it that one suffers. One must prioritize whether or not one pays market price according to one’s station. The philosophy goes to making music as well. If one has the resources to pay top dollar for a custom-made instrument, one should. But great, important, and lasting music has been made on machine-made instruments that were not acquired at their full retail price. (Bird didn’t play a Mauriat!)

Just in the next few days I’ll be performing in settings where the artist takes all the risk for presenting their music as well as some that don’t. This Sunday, I’ll be leading a band featuring virtuoso trumpeters Herb Robertson and Lex Samu, trombonist David Taylor, and saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock at the COMA series at ABC No Rio, a Spartan pass-the-hat venue that has been in business for decades in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. On Saturday, I’ll be performing in vocalist-poet Fay Victor’s “Herbie Nichols Sung” project (fitting as I’m writing this on Thursday, Herbie Nichols’s birthday) with saxophonist Michael Attias, pianist Anthony Coleman, and drummer Rudy Royston at iBeam in Brooklyn. At this venue the artist rents the space. (Victor is presenting a series of events there this month.) However, tonight (Friday) I will be performing with pianist David Lopato and drummer Tyshawn Sorey at the Kitano jazz club. This venue, like Studio 100, where I perform regularly with vocalist Melissa Hamilton, actually pays the artist a modest stipend. The difference here is that ABC NoRio and iBeam are run by musicians and Kitano and Studio 100 are corporately sponsored venues. Interestingly, it’s the artist-presented venues that, in the long run, offer more financial security to the artists who perform there. By allowing the artist to retain all of the cover charges (called donations) and record their music for their own use, the margin of profit can tip in the artists’ favor. Management allows artists to perform based on its assessment of their artistic merit while the fixed-wage paradigm of the corporate sponsored venues demand that money is the deciding factor and, therefore, the fixed-wage is always on the low side.

It’s hard to say whether or not this is where the element of risk should reside. It seems that the nature of the business is that risk alternates between the artist and presenter. Of course, there are collectives, like New Artists, that pool the resources of their artists to better promote their work, and there are networking festivals, like MIDEM, that ostensibly exist to benefit the industry as a whole. But, paradoxically, it seems that as long as the primary focus is to present the music, and not to rake in the money, it’s music business as usual. When it’s the other way around, though, and people get greedy that the bottom falls out and things fail.

The New Must Coexist With the Old

A graffiti marked train passing through ruins in Athens

It is now my fifth day in Greece where I am attending the 2012 Annual Conference and General Assembly of the International Association of Music Information Centres (a.k.a. IAMIC) which is taking place in two cities: Athens and Aegina. The Greek member of IAMIC, IEMA, has been a very active member within the IAMIC network in recent years, largely due to the irrepressible energy of its director Kostas Moschos.

Kostas Moschos, director of IEMA and the coordinator of the 2012 IAMIC Conference, is also a master of the laouto, so he took a break from his role as host to entertain the delegates during our farewell dinner in Aegina, Greece.

Still, Greece feels like a somewhat unusual location for a convening of advocates for and experts in music that (no matter the variety of genre) is new. Greece, after all, is home to one of the world’s oldest civilizations and the landscape here is scattered with reminders of the distant past. The remains of the Parthenon dominated the view from the breakfast area of my hotel in Athens and an even older ruin, the Temple of Afea Athena, is around the corner from our meetings in Aegina.


The temple of Afea Athena in Aegina, Greece, obviously does not look the same in 2012 as it did in the 6th century B.C.E. when it was constructed, but it is a reminder that the past is still very much a part of the present.

I felt somewhat naïve using the world classical during a late night conversation I started with colleagues from other parts of the world about Beethoven’s unjustly marginalized, I think, contemporaries Muzio Clementi and Jan Ladislav Dussek. Using such a word to describe music that’s only a little more than 200 years old seems overly optimistic after seeing the parts of the Acropolis that still survive and learning about all the parts that no longer do, including a church and a mosque that had been built there subsequently and stood for several centuries. The term contemporary classical, of course, is even more egregious and ultimately unverifiable. I have to admit, however, that it has nevertheless been used here quite a bit since no one knows what else to call this stuff and until we all can agree on another name we’re unfortunately stuck with it. (In my new lexicon, post-classical no longer cuts it since that term would have to refer to that Byzantine church and Ottoman mosque built inside the columns of the Parthenon that are now both long gone.)

Even more seemingly counterintuitive than holding discussions about contemporary music in a place where ancient history is so foregrounded is talking about technology, but as with most of the public music discussions I have attended for the past decade, technology has inevitably been the focus of many panels here. Remaining mindful of how music might be more effectively disseminated and appreciated, and ensuring that it can be an economically viable activity are, after all, of paramount importance to anyone interested in the future of music. However, a presentation with the provocative title “Is African music subsidizing Europe?” by journalist and sociologist George Markakis about the lack of an infrastructure to distribute proper remuneration to music creators based in Africa demonstrated that challenges exist far beyond the digital realm.

Although European performing rights societies collect royalties on behalf of African creators whenever their music is broadcast on a radio station anywhere in Europe, Markakis described how that money almost never winds up in the right hands since most African nations do not have rights societies, so it is extremely difficult to track down those creators. As a result, those funds often remain in Europe, theoretically benefiting European music creators instead of their African counterparts. Of course, the broadcast of European music in African countries is also not properly remunerated since there are no performing rights societies collecting those funds at all. But while Europeans are losing rightful income from African broadcasts, they are theoretically recouping it from the unclaimed royalties for Africans. On the other hand, African creators lose in both scenarios. They are not the beneficiaries of unclaimed royalties collected in Africa since none are actually collected.

Maybe there can eventually be an online solution to this problem but none was proposed. A possible starting point at least exists in a new initiative by the Siemens Stiftung and the Goethe Institute, two organizations based in Germany, to fund the creation of a music information centre for all of Sub-Saharan Africa. It seems like an impossible undertaking, since such a centre would cover a larger geographical area than the USA and most of the countries in Europe combined. Plus they would be responsible for collecting information from nearly 50 different countries, most of whose governments would be neither willing nor able to collaborate. But Jens Cording from Siemens, who addressed the IAMIC General Assembly, is hopeful than such an organization can be established. He spoke passionately about how collecting and disseminating music information could greatly improve Intra-African communication, which is severely lacking at the present time. He described how there is only one piano tuner in all of Uganda (and he is 80 years old) while there are several piano tuners in nearby Kenya who could travel to Uganda to train others if only there could be better communication between people in these two countries.

There is of course a serious concern that launching such an enterprise is somehow an act of cultural colonialism, but according to Cording the role of the two German companies is mostly financial. The goal from the onset has been for this to be an African project built by Africans, and they have already hired a project manager based in Johannesburg, South Africa, who will be in charge of the entire operation. Two planning conferences involving 25 attendees from the music sector who are based across the African continent have been held thus far, in Johannesburg and Nairobi, Kenya, to determine a plan of action. In the first year, this new centre will focus on gathering music information from four countries—South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal—and, if it is logistically feasible, one additional country that has yet to be determined. Material from other countries will be added in subsequent years. Music Information Centre Africa will mostly be an online portal, in both English and French, consisting of centre-generated content, third-party content, and moderated user-generated content. It offers a cutting-edge solution for a part of the world where civilizations began even earlier than in Greece but which has unjustly lagged behind just about everywhere else in our own lifetimes in terms of just about every amenity including technological development; musicinafrica.net will be specifically optimized for mobile platforms since smartphones are spreading in this part of the world much faster than personal computers ever did.

Athens Train

In downtown Athens, a graffiti-covered subway car journeys through ruins of an Ancient temple.

Here in Greece I’ve had much better luck getting my laptop to connect to the internet than getting any signal out of my smartphone, but of course I’m dealing with an American carrier. Everywhere in the world is different and one solution will not work for everybody, nor should it. But new things—ideas, organizations, technologies—need to work cooperatively and serve to enhance or compliment older things rather than replace them. I can’t think of more appropriate places to be thinking along these lines than Athens, where buildings from earlier millennia coexist with subways and skyscrapers, or Aegina, where traditional songs and dances are still appreciated by the young and old alike.