Tag: music performance

Eyes Wide Shut—The Case Against Blind Auditions

A blindfolded woman against a dark background. (Photo by Kirill Balobanov via Unsplash.)

Back in July, Anthony Tommasini of The New York Times called for an end to the practice of blind auditions. “If ensembles are to reflect the communities they serve,” he wrote, “the audition process should take into account race, gender and other factors.”

Unsurprisingly, this suggestion received heavy backlash. Between the Culture Wars, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the strong opinions of those in the music world, such a statement was bound to ruffle feathers. Pitting what’s seen as meritocracy in its purest form against the diversity standards of the day was doomed from the start. To progressives, Tommasini’s piece was hollow and missed the point. To conservatives, it was sheer blasphemy.

Tommasini’s suggestion came from a well-meaning place: one of newfound discomfort with the status quo. It would be ungenerous to discount the value of that response. At the same time, why diversity matters to classical music was not examined at all.

I’ve called for an end to the practice of blind auditions for years. To me, Tommasini’s piece was both unpersuasive and incomplete.

To make a contentious change requires the buy-in of many different kinds of people. One person’s call for “representation” is another’s outrage at “quotas.” I believe we can—and should—elevate this conversation past that endless, tiresome tug-of-war.

Rather than going in circles, I ask: what would have to be true for all of us to agree on the potential benefits of revising the process? 

What follows is taken in part from a piece I wrote in February of 2018, updated for relevance.

For decades, blind orchestral auditions have been lauded as one of the world’s fairest hiring practices.

For decades, blind orchestral auditions have been lauded as one of the world’s fairest hiring practices. Yet the merit-based method reveals one of classical music culture’s most problematic assumptions. It comes with a host of undesirable consequences — one of which recently blew up in our faces.

The assumption in question: How you sound is all that matters.

As a result of this belief, candidates aren’t interviewed. References are not required. When you walk into an audition, you aren’t allowed to speak or wear perfume. A rogue cough can betray your gender. Best not to wear clacking heels for the same reason.

As you enter the audition room in silence, a proctor announces you by number. You then play behind a screen. As a result, the judging panel doesn’t know the first thing about you. Not your age, your race, your gender. Not your pedigree, or where you went to school. Nothing.

Certainly, this process has had a tremendously equalizing effect. For starters: blind auditions have made it possible for women to make tremendous inroads into orchestras.

I believe I’ve been saved by the screen myself. At 23, I played for a concertmaster in the weeks leading up to an audition for his orchestra. He didn’t seem to take me very seriously. I left the coaching feeling a bit pessimistic about my chances. After winning the audition, he told me I was a “great artist.” I‘m pretty sure he wouldn’t have felt that way had he known it was me back there all along.

But in the wake of #Metoo and #BlackLivesMatter, I ask whether “how well you play” is really all that matters in the musical workplace.

Is “how well you play” really all that matters in the musical workplace?

Let’s get this out of the way. For a job in the field of musical performance, nothing matters more than how you sound. In this piece, I hope to make the case for letting other relevant things matter, too.

Tempting as it is, let’s not fall into an all-or-nothing false binary here. Sound doesn’t matter “less” by widening our circle to include other factors. The whole point here is additive.

Even if we believe that how you sound is all that matters, the meritocratic foundation of the concept itself doesn’t hold water. To pick a “winner” who “sounds the best” is not objectively possible. Sure, there can be a general consensus—but never a universal one.

That’s because there is no “universal best” to which all players aspire. In music, excellence at the highest level is measured in abstractions that are deeply, intangibly personal. My colleague Kevin Kumar wrote about this beautifully in his piece, The #1 Violinist in the World.

Consider the following: musicians generally accept that anyone who gets to the finals is qualified for the job, and would fit into the fabric of the orchestra just fine. This truth is especially consoling when the runner-up is you.

Sometimes, on a different day, things could have gone a different way. We all have off days: before auditions, I always used to tell myself, “I wish everyone the best. I just hope my best is better today.”

Plus, the composition of the listening committee can determine who comes out on top on any given day. Swap a committee member or two and you might have a different “best” player based on the collective, subjective taste of those listening that day.

The audition procedure of each orchestra also comes into play here. Does the conductor get to choose from among the committee’s top few? What if the conductor’s opinion is different from the committee’s majority vote? Who played “the best,” or “deserved to win,” in that instance? I’ve personally been both the subject of and a participant in these very situations on both sides of the screen.

The members of an orchestra playing music together.

Photo by Samuel Sianipar on Unsplash

At a certain point, “winning” an audition is like catching lightning in a bottle. My own mother once cautioned me against resigning from an orchestra for fear that I wouldn’t be able to “get back in.” While it would have been easy to take that as an insult, she was simply being realistic.

Compare that with the following anecdote. In my early twenties, I had a mentor who helped me prepare for auditions. I’ll never forget her telling me that I had to play with such conviction that the committee would have “no choice” but to name me the winner.

This was a motivating, inspiring, romantic, and idealistic instruction. It’s the kind of thing that puts fire in your belly, motivating you to maximize the one thing you can control: yourself. Your preparation level, commitment, passion, and nerves of steel. It’s exactly the kind of thing you need to hear when preparing for an audition.

But while my mentor’s guidance was both motivating and attractive, it wasn’t as realistic as my mother’s. And here’s the thing: neither of them were wrong. My mentor was right that I needed to do everything in my power to improve my chances. And my mother was right that my chances were exactly that: chances.

Given the above, surely there is room to take more of the person into account. Qualities, experiences, skills, and interests that would further the cause of art music above and beyond “how much more beautifully” the winner played than the runners-up.

Who knows what else they might have been able to bring to the table?


Maybe there should be an interpersonal component to getting a job in music.

Maybe there should be an interpersonal component to getting a job in music. Maybe how well you play isn’t where what matters begins and ends. After all, orchestral and chamber music are team sports. Are you likely to “play your best,” anyway, while seething with rage at—or being psychologically tortured by—your stand partner or principal?

When you audition for a string quartet, both musical and personal chemistry matter. What brings out the best in others is ineffable. It’s laughable to contemplate a blind, screened string quartet audition. Why should orchestral auditions be so different?

What other fields vet only one dimension of every job applicant? To assume that someone’s playing tells you everything you need to know about them is simply false. It’s naive at best and dangerous at worst.

Worshipping sound at the expense of character has had consequences beyond missed opportunities. Blind orchestral auditions have led to orchestras filled with wonderful players. But with no other vetting of any kind, many of them are as interpersonally difficult as they are musically skilled. Much of the time, they cannot stand each other, and dysfunction abounds.

Blind orchestral auditions have led to orchestras filled with wonderful players …. but much of the time, dysfunction abounds.

When orchestras have the great good fortune of hiring a player who also happens to be charismatic, generous, and full of good ideas, they go absolutely bananas milking that person for all they are worth. Imagine being able to harness that energy from not a small handful of serendipitous hires, but from an entire symphony’s worth of carefully-considered candidates. Imagine if the orchestral audition process included not only blind listening, an interview, and references, but also:

  • a trial lesson for an underprivileged, gifted child
  • public speaking
  • a chamber music concert and a new music concert
  • a thorough review of what the candidate brings to the table, including his or her capacity to serve as an effective advocate for the art form

I’m not saying these things are “more important” than sounding good. I’m saying: sound good, and

As a dear friend put: “even Miss America isn’t just about the swimsuit competition.” I’m the Co-Director of Salastina, a non-profit chamber music series, in Los Angeles. My colleague Kevin Kumar and I play and work closely with wonderful people who are superlative musicians—and… terrific advocates for music.

We value both. We believe in their mutually amplifying capacity. And we have faith in the long-term cultural impact of that belief.

Imagine if diversity were a meaningful factor in the orchestra’s hiring process.

Imagine if diversity were a meaningful factor in the orchestra’s hiring process. If the culture of classical music seeks to enhance its relevancy and diversify its ranks, a more comprehensive approach to auditions would be a wonderful place to start.

There’s something sad and insufficient about post-graduate educational efforts to diversify orchestras. Well-meaning as such designated residencies are, they do too little too late. It’s hard to imagine how a person of color truly improves his or her odds of winning a screened audition simply by having sat in a designated “minority residency” chair for a year or two. In 2016, the League of American Orchestras published this study showing that these residencies just don’t work on the whole.

At the same time, I see their value as baby steps. They have the potential to ever-so-slowly steer the Titanic of musicians’ opinions, thereby improving the chances for more meaningful conversations about orchestral hiring practices down the line.

When it comes to diversity, blind auditions haven’t been a complete bust. They have helped the advancement of women: Asian and white women like me. Beyond that, what truly impedes greater diversity in American orchestras is our insistence on the false assumption that sound is all that matters.

Recently, Irshad Manji wrote beautifully on the merits of diversifying the workplace in “White Fragility Is Not the Answer. Honest Diversity Is” for the Heterodox Academy (July 7, 2020). Her piece helped me reframe anew the friction between creating a vibrant, synergistic workforce and current orchestral hiring priorities.

According to Manji, “honest diversity… recognizes that each of us, whatever our labels, is a multifaceted plural.” Manji contrasts this with dishonest diversity, which “slices and dices individuals into categories, as if directing people to their assigned places.”

Does the following statement sound familiar? “We can have diversity or we can have quality. We can’t have both.”

It’s a mainstay of the culture wars. And blind auditions make a fertile battleground.

But what if a variety of more nuanced artistic skills were equated with quality when considering the sum total of a musician? Powerfully, Manji suggests: “Honest diversity starts with the desire for varied perspectives and rectifies representation to fulfill that desire. To begin the other way around — representation in the hopes of diverse thinking — is to incite needless friction.”

She speaks of having the integrity to value more than diversity data points. I would add that valuing more than how a candidate sounds—on any given day, compared to those present, and to the ears of those who just so happen to be listening—is also a question of artistic integrity.

Valuing more than how a candidate sounds is also a question of artistic integrity.

Here’s where I felt The New York Times piece left itself vulnerable to criticism from all sides. It framed metrics as an expedient end goal. It piggy-backed off of the death of George Floyd to make a statement about the uncomfortable lack of black representation within American orchestras.

But it didn’t get into what really matters about diversity in a compelling way. The why of it all was shallow and implied. As a result, the piece came across as opportunistic on the one hand and inflammatory on the other. It didn’t invite the buy-in of people who all want “the best”—and “fairly”—but have different ideas about what that looks like.

Don’t get me wrong: winning a blind audition fair and square feels AWESOME. It’s a notch on your belt that feels about as objective as success can get. And believe me: we cling to these victories like our lives depend on them. (They actually do.)

Who would want to disband a club into which they’ve rightfully earned entry? It’s too easy—and all too human—for the ego to bristle at the prospect. It’s threatening, like the sudden devaluation of prestige, or the dismantling of personal identity. And that’s to say nothing of decades of back-breaking work, unrelenting focus, and significant financial investment.

I say the following with all due respect. Musicians use the idea that “how you sound is all that matters” as both a source of pride and a crutch. It excuses bad behavior. It justifies narrow-mindedness. And it’s its own kind of complacency.

Focusing only on “how you sound” excuses bad behavior and justifies narrow-mindedness.

What if expanding our values system to include other skills and qualities weren’t a devaluation of the importance of sound, but an invitation to go deeper? Manji put this idea beautifully: “wholeness, by definition, is not a zero-sum game.”

I suspect many orchestral musicians would welcome this kind of shift. How many of us have felt hamstrung, restless, under-utilized, and stifled as a result of the narrow requirements of our jobs? Greg Sandow observed in “Not So Satisfied” that orchestral musicians have slightly lower job satisfaction than federal prison guards. (Those with the highest? String quartet players.) At the same time, orchestral musicians boast the greatest “internal motivation.” My husband likens this phenomenon to “keeping a Ferrari in the garage.”

At the same time, how many administrators have earnestly tried to reverse-engineer additional opportunities for orchestral musicians? Inviting them to become more involved with things above and beyond rehearsals and concerts? Sometimes, these efforts have lovely results; other times, they fall flat.

Most of my 20s was about muscling my way into the orchestral world. Most of my 30s was about gradually transitioning out of it—in part because I felt so musically and intellectually constrained. It’s precisely why a friend and I started Salastina 10 years ago.

But not everyone can, or should, go there. Resources and chutzpah are finite. Perhaps it’s up to the larger institutions themselves to prioritize making musical practice less limited, and limiting, for musicians. Inviting more from us—and more of us—from the start would be a great point of departure.

Again, I come back to the concept of “honest diversity.” It is not self-motivated, either deployed in the service of earning woke points or clung to desperately as a key to survival. It’s not even simply a moral imperative. Rather, honest diversity is intrinsic to creating vibrant, meaningful, synergistic workplaces, cultural institutions, and art.  

As Shea Scruggs and Weston Sprott wrote in “Advancing Inclusion: Creative Ways Musicians Can Take the Lead,” the job description for an orchestral position is usually limited to just two words. “Section Violin.” “Principal Clarinet.” “Associate Principal Double Bass” clocks in at four.

What if more thought and care were put into crafting musicians’ job descriptions? What if these job descriptions reflected the unique needs of each orchestra—and the communities they serve? What if skin color and gender diversity followed naturally from prioritizing different perspectives and life experiences as a part of the process, rather than an antagonizing insistence on ever-narrowing metrics?

What’s more, orchestral musicians tend to stay in their posts for decades. What if the creation of each job description were treated more like a mini-strategic planning session? One that takes into account where the orchestra is likely to be in five, ten, twenty, or even thirty years?

A cellist playing behind a curtain.

Photo by Alberto Bigoni on Unsplash

It is my opinion that blind listening should always be an important part of the hiring process. But who knows how dramatically musical culture would shift if we valued a more well-rounded kind musicianship?

The days of a one-size-fits-all prescription for “fairness” and “the best” are over.

So what to do? The days of a one-size-fits-all, un-nuanced, and even toxic prescription for “fairness” and “the best” are over. It’s up to individual organizations and communities to determine how best to navigate hiring the most qualified candidates for their particular needs.

What kind of dynamics, literal and figurative, would change for the better? What kind of vibrancy would enter the field? What kind of relevance to today’s world would more naturally emerge from the art form?

What else might we not have to force quite so hard, if we could just loosen our grip on an assumption that’s as tenacious as it is problematic?

I’m feeling like it’s high time we found out.

I’d like to thank the following people for their many insights into this conversation, both recently and over the years: Derrick Spiva Jr., Reena Esmail, Simon Woods, Alexander Laing, Vijay Gupta, my husband Philip White, and my work-husband, Kevin Kumar.

Classical Pantomime

Following up on last week, I want to talk a little bit more about musical authenticity and how notions of what’s authentic in music have changed in recent years. For starters, let’s look at this video of an “acoustic” performance by Marina and the Diamonds, and think about what the word “acoustic” means in this context:

The video begins with the keyboardist playing a digital autoharp, before switching to a digital piano. The guitarist faithfully strums his acoustic guitar through most of the song, but it’s often so low in the mix as to be nearly inaudible. While the overall scene duplicates the setup of a band playing together in a room, there’s little to no room sound; the reverb on the singer’s voice is artificial. And on the chorus there’s a mysterious, invisible shaker played by an offscreen ghost.

In other words, there’s not much that’s acoustic (i.e. non-electronic) about how the sound was produced in this video. Instead, the term is used as a kind of skeuomorphic analogy for sounds that have an acoustic origin. I’m not pointing this out to deride or condemn the methods here. In fact, I think it’s interesting how there’s no attempt to disguise the fact that the scenario is in some way contrived. (Also, it sounds great.) This represents a significant change from a time when acoustic music was largely seen as real and genuine, and electronic music was often felt to be trickery and artifice.

This transition isn’t limited to the pop music world either. At Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration, Anthony McGill, Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma, and Gabriela Montero pantomimed a performance of John Williams’ “Air and Simple Gifts.” This was regarded as a purely practical decision—the weather was too cold and the risk of broken strings was too great. Caroline Florman, a spokesperson for the event, said that “the fact they were forced to perform to tape because of the weather did not seem relevant.” There are plenty of other notable examples too, like Luciano Pavarotti lip synching at the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics. (The Olympics, in general, seems like an epicenter for this kind of thing.) The number of people who are bothered by this behavior seems to dwindle further and further.

Contrast this to the 1983 premiere of Frank Zappa’s “While You Were Art” by the California EAR Unit, when the ensemble, led by percussionist Art Jarvinen, pretended to perform while a cassette of synthesized instruments played back through loudspeakers. This caused a major scandal in the new music scene at the time, in part because no one in the audience was aware of the deception. In Zappa’s mind, this confirmed the phoniness of the classical music establishment, but it’s hard to imagine anyone making that point with this kind of performance now. (It’s also hard to imagine everyone being fooled by it.)
It’s difficult, maybe impossible, to pinpoint when exactly this attitude changed. But now we’re seeing an increase in canny, self-aware pantomime, like William Brittelle’s manic stage performances. Here the gap between sound and performance becomes a realm of possibility. Composers and performers are just beginning to explore this kind of territory, and it’ll be interesting to see where it leads.

When Stage Presence Happens

Stage View
I want to raise another topic that is relevant to the good performance/bad performance discussion we’ve been having, prompted by the article “A Great Live Music Performance Requires More Than Being Rehearsed.” What makes a live performance really great? The linked article above is an interview with live performance producer Tom Jackson, in which he talks about the need for bands to develop and refine their concert performances in order to thrive. It’s focused on the rock and pop music worlds, but the concepts essentially apply to any kind of performance. A successful performance of contemporary music is subject to similar criteria, in that ideally there is a real connection between musician(s) and audience. In our musical universe, performers face some very real (literally) obstacles in this regard: music stands.

Just because what an artist plays on stage is musically good, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a live performance of that music will make a good show. Knowing what works musically…. and knowing what works on stage are two different things.

Not only do music stands create a physical barrier between musician and audience, but presumably the music stand is there because the musician needs to read from the pages it holds. If attention is focused on the music stand, there’s not much left to give directly to the audience. It can certainly be done, but it requires some seriously outrageous charisma.

Musicians who memorize the pieces they play are at a distinct advantage when it comes to performances. They have the music at their fingertips and can move that focus to creating a connection with the audience. Memorization is business as usual for eighth blackbird, and the results show. Another performer, cellist Joshua Roman, insists on memorizing as much of the music he performs as possible, because he feels constricted when blocked by a music stand. Obviously everyone can’t be expected to memorize all of the music they perform, and orchestras and choruses definitely are different beasts (however, things seem to go well when the conductor has memorized the music). It does make a difference, though. Music groups in other genres go on tour and play two-hour sets from memory. Major touring bands have likely rehearsed eight hours a day for several weeks before they set foot on a stage. Opera singers memorize their parts. Actors memorize all of their lines. Yes, all of that takes a long time, a lot of effort, and many rehearsals, but the impact is clear. Just imagine if they were carting their scripts and scores around the stage with them.

As the article states, being well rehearsed is not enough to guarantee a great performance, and that’s where stage presence comes in. Some people naturally have it, but it can also be taught. Not only would I love to be a fly on the wall watching a training session by Tom Jackson, but I would love to know what a session would be like for a classical music ensemble that does perform with music stands. How does that work? I think it could, and I believe that it is an important ingredient (possibly the number one ingredient?) in the “audience engagement” recipe that too often goes unacknowledged.

When Good Performances Happen

SOLI Chamber Ensemble rehearsing at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX.

SOLI Chamber Ensemble rehearsing at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX.

It has been great to read all of the comments on last week’s post about bad performances—I’m glad to see both composers and performers sharing their thoughts. In the interest of addressing both sides of this coin—or maybe that greener grass over there—I’m also interested in unpacking aspects of good performances. Yes, they do happen!

What about performances that turn out better than expected? A couple of commenters from last week shared stories of student groups giving performances of compositions that were surprisingly good because there was plenty of time to practice and fully absorb the music. What about performances that end up coming across differently than the composer expected, but that still work? Again, it does happen. One time, a performer I met only hours before a performance took a semi-improvisatory section of a piece in a direction that I had never considered. While for me it wasn’t necessarily the definitive version of the piece, it worked incredibly well! He made that work his own. When a musician spends enough time with, and thinks deeply enough about, a composition to drive it successfully off-road, you know you’ve found a good colleague. Similarly, on more than one occasion I have heard pieces greatly improved by performers who suggest small changes—a more dramatic shift of dynamics here, speeding that phrase up a bit there—which they think of during rehearsal. While I don’t always agree with suggestions for changes, I am always glad to listen to the ideas and try things out. Being flexible is part of being a good collaborator. Isn’t that what the composer/performer relationship is about?

While the “us vs. them” dichotomy between composers and performers is apparently alive and well, it seems highly unproductive. The last time I checked, we are all musicians. Maybe we are approaching the language of music from different standpoints, but we are all in the same field. I may not be a performer, but when I’m working with a musician or ensemble, I enter into that relationship with the expectation that we are all striving to reach the same goal. It doesn’t always work out, but even if it doesn’t, the world keeps turning. Both good performances and bad performances are a two-way street—it’s up to both composer and performer to work together to determine how things are going to shake out.

What performances of yours (either of works you’ve composed or pieces you have performed) have been really successful? Was there any part of the process that surprised you in a positive way? What does a successful performance really mean, anyway? How about those of you in the audience? What makes a performance successful in your eyes and ears?

When Bad Performances Happen

A few days ago as I was quickly scanning the Twitterverse for news and information, I paused on these tweets from Northern California-based composer Garrett Shatzer:

After quickly weighing in with my $0.02…

…this appeared from Brooklyn-based composer Daniel Felsenfeld…..

…who elaborated on his perspective in a later email….

The whole idea that we ought to be grateful and penitent even in the presence of a poor performance—and by this I do not mean a player who is not exactly flawless but rather an unprepared and uncaring performance—is something with which we all must deal. For one, it is a little—LITTLE—bit true because we can probably trace some professional good things to some less-than-stellar performances, so it behooves us to suffer a little. On the other hand, how often do we get misrepresented?

…and here we are.

Bad performances happen.

This is, quite simply, a reality of being a composer. Performances are not always what we would like them to be, or what we expect them to be. This can range from, “That wasn’t quite what I was hoping for,” to “I think I’ll just crawl under this seat right now and stay there. Forever.” To emphasize Danny’s point above, we are not talking about the performance that contains a few blemishes, but rather to the train wreck situation that unfortunately, most of us have experienced at one time or another. Although I think that it is possible to minimize the potential for these situations—for instance, by being selective about what musicians play what music—I don’t believe that they can be completely avoided. We have all been caught by surprise by a performance we thought was going to go well and then didn’t.

Will a poor performance damage a composer’s career/reputation/future projects?

There is no clear answer to this question, but in my experience, a bad performance is more likely to impact the musician(s) than the composer. An experienced listener (and sometimes even those with less experience) can often distinguish between a problem with the performance vs. an issue with the music itself, even in the case of a premiere. Perhaps a long run of consistently poor performances of a piece would have a real effect, but one or two? That’s just life.

If a performance is especially problematic, one thing a composer can do to minimize any potential negative impact is to simply be silent. No one who wasn’t in attendance needs to know a thing about it beyond the fact that it happened. It can safely be included on a list of performances, on a resume or CV, on a website, etc. If it was documented in audio or video, you are under no obligation (unless there was a very specific and unusual contract agreement regarding the performance) to share that with the world. And chances are if the performance was that terrible, the performer or ensemble isn’t going to put it out there either.
As far as handling the situation in the moment—assuming the composer is present, that is—I am highly pro-diplomacy. Take a bow, shake hands, greet the audience, enjoy a glass of wine at the reception. If you feel comfortable telling the musicians you were unhappy with how things played out, don’t do it then and there. Save that for later, maybe even several days after the performance. And keep in mind that you may not have a clear picture of the situation—something could have happened to affect the performance, such as a personal emergency, a musician feeling ill, a practice space snafu. Take time to suss that out and discuss with the musicians what happened before airing your grievances. It’s also possible that something was amiss within the music, or the parts, some aspect of the gear or tech setup, who knows. Discuss what might resolve the issue in future performances—the fix could be as simple as allowing for more rehearsal time. We are all musicians in this together, and not too many musicians are deliberately out to trash a performance. If you are convinced that you have been mistreated, then don’t work with those people again.

As a silver lining, the composer should remember that s/he will still receive a royalty payment!

How can we be sure our music is receiving the care and attention it deserves?

In my experience, the most effective way for composers to ensure that their music will be well represented is to build a strong community of musicians who are excited about playing their compositions. It can take time, and definitely a bit of trial and error (and probably some less-than-awesome performances), but we owe it to ourselves and to our music to make the effort. Follow the good performances, show the musicians that you appreciate their hard work, and stick with those people.
There are so many things to talk about around this issue—please have at it in the comments section!

(Note: While the sharing of personal experiences is welcome, musician-bashing will not be tolerated. Keep it civil, y’all.)

Music As Performance Art (Part 2 of 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds Heard: Six MTC Studio Concert Videos

MTC Studio performancesThe six pieces showcased below were all performed at the kick-off event for the MTC Studio, held at 92YTribeca on October 15, 2010. The evening featured performances, videos profiling the featured composers, and on-stage conversations with each of them. Now New Music USA is going back into MTC’s archive and bringing these performances out for the world to see.

These videos were shot by Jeremy Robins, Hope Hall, and Steve Taylor and the audio was recorded by Zach Herchen. They were produced and edited by Jeremy Robins.

Included in the video gallery below:

—Tim Feeney plays Binge Delirium by Yu-Hui Chang.
—Claire Chase and Eric Lamb of ICE play Edgewater by Marcos Balter.
—Wendy Richman and Tim Feeney perform Two Hand by Ken Ueno.
—Yevgeny Kutik and Tim Bozarth perform Supernatural Love by Kati Agócs.
—Glenn Kotche performing his own piece, Projections of What Might.
—Dohee Lee performs her Gut Ritual, inspired by Korean shamanism.



On Monday I participated in a very nice event at my alma mater that included readings of poetry and fiction, a photography presentation, and performances of two of my semi-recent compositions. As the readings unfolded, I felt slightly envious of the writers, who could simply hold their books and read to the audience themselves, and the photographer, whose wonderful pictures were exhibited in the art gallery. In contrast, presenting my music involved bringing four musicians to the campus (superb musicians who did a brilliant job), organizing a number of rehearsals, and, once we arrived, arranging for music stands, a PA system, cables, etc. And then—POOF!—the music was finished.

This is always how it happens. I know this, and yet there are still times when I feel surprised at how quickly the moments pass. It’s especially pronounced when I am performing myself; when I am working the laptop in one of my electroacoustic pieces, I am focused in such a way that I don’t actually “hear” the piece as the audience does. There have been many times when one of those performances ends, and I have to ask the other musicians, “How did it go?”

I am continually struck by the fleeting nature of a musical performance relative to the amount of human labor involved in making a single performance happen. This is not at all to suggest that making music is more work than writing a book or making works of visual art—they all involve a tremendous amount of effort. With artists who produce a physical product such as a book or a painting, however, there arrives a point at which the thing is done and can be directly experienced by nearly anyone from that point on. But in the time-based medium of music, there always has to be that additional layer of translation in linear time. Given that, when I’m composing something I always try to keep in mind the thought, “Okay, you have (for instance) eight minutes to say what you have to say, so make whatever that communication is as sparklingly crystal clear as you can!”

Sometimes if I think too hard on this issue, the whole scenario becomes completely ridiculous—like when you stare at a written word for a while and it suddenly looks as if it’s spelled all wrong—and I wonder, why on earth do this composing thing? It makes no sense. However, in the end, those moments of performance are for the musicians and the listeners to soak in. When someone says that a performance made them think about something in a different way, or gave them an idea, or that it made them forget about whatever was bothering them, I know that creating such ephemeral chunks of time in space is absolutely worth the effort. They are focused reminders that every single moment is unique.

Breathing is Fundamental

Thar She Blows! by Jane Avanti on Flickr

Last month I happened upon an interview with viola superhero Nadia Sirota, in which she briefly addresses the way she breathes while playing. While she understands that some find it distracting, she says it is an integral part of her musical thinking in that “it helps my brain be in the same place as my physical body.” Having worked with her in a recording studio as part of a current musical collaboration, I can confirm that she is a big breather, but it is absolutely in service of the music—as if those huge breaths are landing her smack in the middle of the music, and that music is the only thing that is happening right then in the universe.

As a composer, I’m completely fine with that! Hearing the performer breathing can add intensity to a recording, not to mention serve as reminder that the music is coming from a human. (It is surprising how often that little detail can be forgotten.) Even though I love a pristine recording just as much as the next person, why should that mean there is no audible breathing in it? I have come to like hearing performers breathing in recordings, and that is probably a good thing since I seem to gravitate towards the big breathers anyway. Years ago when I recorded Luminoso for guitar and electronics, my guitarist Enrique had an awful time in the studio at first, because he was self-conscious about his heavy breathing, and tried to quiet down by taking shallow breaths. Needless to say this was a disaster—he couldn’t play a thing! Once I persuaded him to stop worrying about the recording, and just breathe like he always does when he plays, everything went fine. The breath is so connected to the act of playing any instrument that changing the way you breathe automatically changes the way you play. Even sitting down writing music begs an awareness of breath and posture, because it can really make a difference to the music being produced.

I think it’s easy for composers who are not regular performers to forget the physical aspect of musical performance, simply because they are so much in their heads about writing the notes. Composer Pierre Jalbert mentioned in my conversation with him for NewMusicBox that he spends time imagining what it would physically feel like to perform what he is writing, which is a great idea. Years ago I taught myself to circular breathe and play the didjeridoo simply because I wanted to, but the added benefit was that it vastly improved my wind and brass writing. I don’t have to think about phrasing as much as I can feel it now.

The most famous example of idiosyncratic performance habits within the realm of classical music is, of course, Glenn Gould, and lots of performers have things they do that may or may not fit within the boundaries of “standard performance practice.” Professional performers who have retained such unusual habits through years of training, practice, and performance have likely held onto those habits for the simple reason that for them the idiosyncrasies contribute to the interpretation of the work—they help link the brain to the body.

Accidental Audience

Busking, by sierraromeo on Flickr

A thoughtful blog post by composer Daniel Wolf addressing the concept of “public” spaces (which, as he points out, are not actually as accessible as one might suppose) has got my brain churning about musical performance in unrestricted places. By that, I mean the sort of place where unsuspecting folks would happen upon a musical performance (or whatever sort of performance) and pause to check it out, or run away screaming, or… well something.

To me it seems as if encountering a performance in an unexpected way automatically embeds it in one’s consciousness a bit more firmly than a prearranged concert. Of course regular concerts can be mind-blowing as well, but the surprise element of, as Wolf says, “discovering someone making a well-intended noise in a corner I hadn’t noticed before” somehow has the capacity to impact a listener in a very direct and substantial way. For instance, out of all the many performances I attended during my studies at the California Institute of the Arts, what do I most remember? Showing up at school late one night and happening upon a group of actors practicing sword fighting in the hallways, accompanied (purely by chance) by a fantastic jazz trio practicing in another nearby hallway. Similarly, when I lived in Barcelona I was always thrilled to hear the amazing gypsy clarinetist making his daily subway rounds, not to mention the occasional outbursts of flamenco percussion on Las Ramblas during weekend afternoons. I never knew when or where a musical happening would appear, but when it did, it never failed to make an impression.

As much as I enjoy attending concerts in the sorts of venues where one would expect to hear music, the delight that buskers and street performances can provide makes me hope that even more composers will take advantage of the possibilities of music making in communal spaces. Although it is not a new idea, it hasn’t been widely implemented, despite the successes of works that have fared well in such a context. Recent examples include Lisa Bielawa‘s Chance Encounter, which has been presented in multiple locations, John Luther Adams’s Inuksuit which has enjoyed both indoor and outdoor performances, and composer James Holt’s recent presentation of Thruline, in which cellists performed the Prelude from J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G major on every Coney Island bound F-train subway platform. Also, let us not forget the Asphalt Orchestra!

What better way to turn unsuspecting listeners on to new music? While most people probably wouldn’t purchase a ticket to a concert for music they know very little or nothing about, might they stop on a street corner or subway platform to listen to something unfamiliar? What if the answer is yes?

As James Holt writes in a blog post documenting the process of producing Thruline, “I want people to slowly realize, after stepping onto the train and making several stops, that something out of the ordinary is happening and that it is a kind of gift from us to them.”

Or, one could take a more Henry Threadgill approach:

Art can have a reverse effect. It could turn you off and it would still be affecting. It’s making you think about something or do something in a different way than you had been doing things. I move you away from what I’m doing, but I made you look at something else more seriously that you haven’t been paying enough attention to in the first place. People always think that because like art turns people away that that’s the end of it. No, that’s not the end of it.

Although these methods might not be effective everywhere (dammit, Washington, D.C.!), the outside world of unrestricted spaces is a concert setting worth considering.