Tag: originality

Roberto Sierra: Globalizing Local Experiences

A man in a tweed jacket with glasses in Manhattan

Composer Roberto Sierra frequently likes to tell the story of how, when he was growing up in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico, he would hear Pablo Casals playing his cello on television while salsa recordings of the Fania All-Stars blared outside on the street. Most of Sierra’s music—which spans numerous works for soloists, chamber ensembles, and orchestra as well as his massive Missa Latina—has forged a synthesis of these two musical realms. But the question of what kinds of music are local or global is more complex than it might initially seem.

Conceptually, one might argue, Western classical music is tailor-made for global promulgation since a score written in country A in year X could theoretically be rendered equally well by musicians in either country B in year Y or country C in year Z.  But, of course, thanks to the advent of recording technology well over a century ago, those folks in A, B, and C can now easily listen to each other.  As a result, any locally made music has the possibility of reaching a global audience.  In fact, the salsa Roberto Sierra was hearing in Vega Baja was actually recorded in New York City, whereas Pablo Casals moved to Puerto Rico when Sierra was a young child and lived there for the rest of his life.

However, as Sierra pointed out when we met up with him in a hotel room before a performance of his music in New York City later that evening, “the heyday of classical music is Bach, Beethoven, and Mozart, and I think they were still very much localized.”  But Sierra went on to explain how the elevation of certain repertoire has made it extremely difficult for the vast majority of composers.

It’s very difficult for any composer, even German composers nowadays, because you have to live with that notion of something that was great and something that is not able to be great anymore.  And for the others living in America, or in Latin America, wherever we are, we’re thinking, “Oh my God, we are outside of this canon of great masterpieces of humanity.”

But Sierra—who initially left Puerto Rico to study with György Ligeti in Hamburg in the late 1970s, went on to serve as the composer-in-residence of the Milwaukee Symphony in the 1980s, and has been a member of the composition faculty at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, since 1992—doesn’t bother himself with following a lineage or adhering to a zeitgeist. His piano concerto Variations on a Souvenir sounds like it could have been written in the 19th century while his Second Piano Trio uses a tone row as well as the strict clave rhythm but doesn’t really sound either dodecaphonic or Afro-Cuban.

I always thought and I always commented to other colleagues: You think Boulez is looking over your shoulder, and you’re waiting for his approval or disapproval?  In fact, these people do not care what you write.  If you’re writing something so that the powers that be will approve of you, composers do not; composers are self-centered!  They’re only thinking about their own stuff.  So write your own stuff.  …  I don’t even have Ligeti looking at me.

Roberto Sierra in conversation with Frank J. Oteri at the Park Central Hotel in New York, NY
November 13, 2018—2:30 p.m.
Video presentation by Molly Sheridan

Mad Fresh

The most sampled recording in history is probably “Change Le Beat” by Beside and Fab Five Freddy, which was produced in 1982 by Bill Laswell.

If you’re listening to this song for the first time right now, you might be wondering what’s so special about it. You’d be right to wonder. Even Fab Five Freddy was reluctant to have his name on it. The special part of the track comes at the very end, when there’s a beep, followed by a vocoded voice saying, “Ahhh, this stuff is really fresssshhhh.” Hip-hop folklore has it that it’s Fab Five Freddy speaking the line, but it’s actually Bill Laswell’s manager Roger Trilling—he was playfully imitating Elektra Records head Bruce Lundvall. As Dave Tompkins puts it in his book How To Wreck A Nice Beach, “One of the most cloned hip-hop noises was but an imitation itself, mistaken for someone else in disguise, imitating the imitator on the A-side but replicated by a machine.”

The words “ahhh” and “fresh” are for hip-hop turntablists what the twelve-bar blues is for guitarists: both an entry point for beginners, and a bottomless resource for master practitioners. “Ahhh” and “fresh” are comprised of filtered white noise, which always scratches well. The “ahhh” has a distinctive attack and decay, so it’s easy for turntablists to keep track of where in the sample they are. And “fresh” is, well, fresh.

There are several different definitions of “fresh.” As a synonym for new or different, it can refer to food that isn’t canned, frozen, or otherwise preserved; a well-rested, energetic, healthy-looking person; an inexperienced noob; someone recently arrived, as in “fresh off the boat”; water that’s good to drink and not salty; or air that smells clean, pure, and cool. Fresh is also a dated slang term for impudence or impertinence. In hip-hop culture, fresh is on the endless string of synonyms for cool. Neither Roger Trilling nor the record executive he was mocking knew the hip-hop sense of the word when “Change Le Beat” was recorded, but that’s naturally the sense that turntablists intend when they scratch it. Thus you get Doug E Fresh rapping, “You’ve got to be [fresh], to rock with [fresh], and I’m D-O-U-G-I-E [fresh]!”

The wonderful thing about the hip-hop usage of fresh is that it could be referencing any of the various original senses of the word: new, refreshing, appetizing, attractive, or sassy.

fresh yogurt

We in Western culture have a habit of reflexively using “original” as a synonym for “good,” especially in music. I’m going to argue that originality is not actually a virtue, but rather, that freshness is. The concepts are related, but not identical.

In the strictest sense, we can understand originality to be a measure of information entropy, the information in a system that’s novel or unexpected. A song’s information entropy is high the first time you hear it, and then drops precipitously on each subsequent listen. Once you’ve thoroughly memorized and analyzed the song, its information entropy approaches zero. More generally, the music with the highest information entropy will be the most dissimilar to music you’ve heard before.

Producing original music in the information-theoretic sense of the word is trivially easy. Pull note names and durations out of a hat, or get a toddler to bang on a MIDI keyboard, or consult the I Ching. If you want to be really novel, you can generate audio files by randomly filling an array with ones and zeroes. The result is likely to be either tedious or annoying, or both. You’ve generated a lot of new information, but without a pattern or structure, it’s just noise. Now of course, some people like noise, and good for them. But even noise music is more structured than complete randomness. Most of us don’t want total originality in music; we want small variations and hybrids of known ideas, a delicate balance between novelty and familiarity. That balance will tilt one way or the other, depending on the listener.

Very often when we praise music for being “original,” we mean that it’s new or surprising to us personally. Surprise is entirely a function of your expectations. Recently, a student of mine presented a song by a self-described “experimental” Korean band called Clazziquai. I was expecting some kind of skronked-out punk, and instead was greeted by tame electronic pop with some occasional audio manipulations and stutters. Within the formulaic confines of K-Pop, no doubt these effects are startling. If you listen to a lot of Aphex Twin or Squarepusher, however, Clazziquai will hold no surprises for you.

Rather than evaluating music in terms of its originality, we need a criterion that gets at more meaningful aspects of musical quality: emotional truth-telling, recursive patterns of symmetries and asymmetries, intellectual depth, danceability, and so on. We should be judging music by its freshness. We can use exactly the same standards for music that we’d use for produce. A carrot doesn’t have to be unlike all other carrots that came before it; it just has to be crunchy, tasty, and nutritious. Unlike vegetables, music can retain its freshness over long time spans, and can even get fresher over time. Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit” epitomized freshness when it first came out—the album it appears on was named Future Shock for a reason.

This song exemplifies the ’80s so perfectly that it was inevitably going to become dated and lame after a while. But then, like many artifacts of early hip-hop culture, “Rockit” attained a retro freshness that will never wear out. The documentary Scratch features a series of turntablists who cite “Rockit” as their first inspiration. I incorporated some of them into my own remix:

“Change Le Beat” itself was never all that fresh, and it probably never will be. But just like a rotted log feeds a whole new miniature ecosystem, the “Ahh” and “Fresh” samples are inexhaustible sources of new music. No track that includes the samples can be original by definition, but they can most certainly be fresh.

Trite & True

From The Nouveau Classical Project's Sweet Lost Pierrot concert.

From The Nouveau Classical Project’s Sweet Lost Pierrot concert. Conductor Kyle Ritenauer, violinist Marina Kifferstein, pianist Sugar Vendil, cellist Rose Bellini, clarinetist Mara Mayer, and soprano Amanda Gregory. Photo by Misaki Matsui

As the artistic director of an ensemble that was built on a desire to connect classical music and fashion, I’ve often been asked to discuss the idea of challenging the status quo. My initial answer is a question: these days, what is the status quo? It’s a complicated concept in our “everything goes” culture, but what I can say is that we are all aware of what has the potential to piss off versus please a certain audience. For example, classical music performances that incorporate elements of popular culture—in the case of my ensemble, fashion—are typically viewed negatively as counterproductive to the original concept of the composer. But I don’t think of it that way. We aren’t trying to subvert the composer’s intention but rather color on the edges with young fashion designers creating original clothing that is inspired by the music itself. It brings a new perspective to the concert experience.

When I started The Nouveau Classical Project, I was less confident than I am today. The only classical music world I knew was the academic one; I was late in discovering the more open-minded new music scene. I was immediately on the defensive, imagining all sorts of attacks on my integrity, people questioning whether or not I was a “serious” musician and being accused of using fashion to hide something. As in: love of fashion=superficial=not serious about music because one spends energy thinking about frivolous clothes. I have no idea who these people were that I had imagined, seeing as I had zero public presence. Although my initial intention was not to push boundaries, I knew this was probably going to be a natural side effect of having an unconventional approach to a traditional performance structure. I listed reasons justifying my concept. I like music. I like fashion. Why not combine them into something interesting that hasn’t been explored? Why not create a collaborative atmosphere between the music and fashion? We are, after all, watching the performers while they are playing the music. But ultimately this is not what mattered. What it boiled down to was that I was simply expressing myself creatively through the medium of a concert.

Flutist Laura Cocks, Clarinetist Isabel Kim, Violinist Marina Kifferstein, Cellist Kivie Cahn-Lipman, Pianist Sugar Vendil, and guest soprano Lucy Dhegrae. Photos by Misaki Matsui And I think that that is what most of us are essentially doing when we allegedly break the rules—we are simply being creative with the form of self-expression we know best. So what if you are about to attempt something you think can potentially alienate those you want approval from? I may not have something new to add to recurrent TED Talk-esque favorites such as “do what you love no matter what,” “stay true to yourself,” and “ignore the haters,” but I can speak from personal experience about what I’ve learned thus far from running a group that often takes a different perspective on the classical concert paradigm.

Staying true to your artistic vision is much easier said than done. After losing grant applications specifically due to the fashion presence, my group and I used to discuss how we could ensure that we weren’t viewed as gimmicky or superficial. This was just a waste of time and breath. The truth is you cannot control what people think. I knew from the start that fellow musicians who didn’t have a connection with or a remote interest in fashion would be unlikely fans, yet I still cared about their opinions. I also wanted to win awards that validated our place in the music world. This spurred a series of missteps on the artistic level, with us trying to recreate the success of other new music ensembles (i.e., participating in a concert series that they had been involved in, programming similar music, etc.). I completely respect these ensembles and what they do, but their activities did not fit NCP’s artistic vision. Instead of nurturing that vision, I fell into the trap of spending precious time and energy on things I wasn’t excited about in order to get ahead. Oftentimes, when we cater to what we think people will want instead of what we truly believe in (in actuality, we really know only one of those two things), time is wasted on creating mediocre work.

From The Nouveau Classical Project's Sweet Lost Pierrot concert.

From The Nouveau Classical Project’s Sweet Lost Pierrot concert. Fashion direction by Zon Chu using pieces from Gemma Khang’s S/S 2013 collection. Violinist Marina Kifferstein, cellist Rose Bellini, and clarinetist Mara Mayer. Photo by Misaki Matsui

Instead of trying appeal to people you think have power over your career, I’ve learned it’s more fruitful to cultivate an audience that really believes in what you’re doing. What’s been encouraging for us is that we have raised more funds from individuals than we would have had we only won most of the grants we applied for (although winning them in addition to these donations wouldn’t have hurt!). This is because we have found wonderful people who really believe in us. You can find an audience for your unconventional artistic endeavors; trying to figure this out is time well spent. It could be the difference between a one-time attendee versus an advocate.

When it comes to the status quo, my instinct tells me that the best thing to do is to ignore it, whatever we think “it” is. We all know of accomplished artists who have already succeeded in challenging convention, and while we can look to them as examples, again, this is easier said than done. As an emerging artist, I can personally speak to the desperate need for both a sense of validation and encouragement that could influence our artistic choices. There’s no formula for “doing it right.” There’s only doing. (Cue slow clap.)

Insomnia and the Music that Eludes our Grasp


It’s time to go to sleep again before a big day, and of course I can’t sleep. As any insomniac knows, the knowledge that it’s absolutely imperative to get enough sleep makes sleep almost impossible to achieve. Typically, I’m going to toss and turn and try to fall asleep, but sleep will likely only come when I become so dejected at my prospect for a good night’s rest that I simply accept I’m going to be up all night—which is just what finally sends me off to dreamland.

In the above example, sleep only arrives when I’ve resigned myself to its absence; the sleep is actually a “side effect” of another behavior or mental state, as the mentality needed to fall asleep is incompatible with the desire to do so. Another similar phenomenon involves the conundrum of “acting naturally,” which is easy (almost unavoidable!) when one isn’t striving for it, and comes off as hilariously put-on whenever someone makes an effort to be effortless.

I’ve come to realize that the best things in life—the most cherished human experiences, as well as the most valuable states of mind—are the things that recede from our grasp. The fact that naturalness (along with many other qualities) does not yield to conscious will is partly what makes naturalness so rare and desirable in the first place. Just as there is no way to will oneself to sleep, there is no way to acquire the more valued human qualities through some trick or shortcut, because qualities like spontaneity and sincerity seem to exist as byproducts of other decisions or actions. There’s no way to become more spontaneous, directly, yet it may be possible to cultivate other habits that make it possible for spontaneity (like sleep) to arise.

In the creation of music, I wonder if there are similar self-defeating mechanisms (like trying to fall asleep). I very much desire to finish my current project on time, but a constant, acute awareness of this approaching time constraint is unlikely to help me focus on being creative—in fact, it is likely to slow me down and make me late, as getting work done on time has more to do with an awareness of the work itself rather than external expectations. Likewise there are some clearly desirable mental states (my earlier example of spontaneity is especially relevant for musicians) that I can’t will by trying to “be spontaneous,” but that I can encourage with things like a stimulating workspace, uninterrupted work time, and only accepting projects that interest me a great deal.

People who create music have to contend with an awful lot of pressing, important matters that most of us would like to influence through our own action or will, just as we can become better at an instrument with daily study or become less shy in talking about our music through hard work and engagement. So it can be frustrating to encounter those situations where that tried-and-true recipe of effort plus determination doesn’t cut it. I remember similar frustration in trying to be able to perform a difficult guitar lick at a fast tempo, until I slowed down and realized that speed doesn’t come from speed, it comes from mastery.

As a composer, there are a great many things I value more than speed—originality, for instance—and I have to ask myself: is my own (completely understandable) desire to be original likewise a self-defeating mechanism, born of the best intentions but ultimately doomed to the same kind of dead-end fate as willing oneself to sleep? If originality is born through authenticity (coupled with the fact that there’s never been another person exactly like myself), then “trying to be original” is another well-meaning but ultimately ineffectual undertaking. How often I’ve realized I was holding myself back from my creative potential by being too attached to the goal and not aware enough of the conditions that might—with a little luck—make the goal attainable.

There’s an implied human arrogance in which we tend to assume that our striving for something desirable can only hasten its attainment, whereas in reality that is not always the case. As they often say about New England roads, “you can’t get there from here!”—or, that landmark which is easily glimpsed might only be accessible through the most convoluted, backwards route that, for a time, leads us away from our chosen destination.