Tag: percussion

Susie Ibarra: Hybrid Culture

Susie Ibarra performing on a drum kit

A week before I finally had a chance to have an extended conversation with multi-genre composer and percussionist Susie Ibarra, she performed at Roulette–her first concert with a group in front of a live audience since the pandemic shut everything down around the world. To say it has been a challenging 16 months for everyone is a tremendous understatement, but for Ibarra–whose artistry has been so deeply shaped by collaborations with other musicians–it could have proven stifling. And yet, this strange period has been remarkably productive for her.

Thus far this year, she has released two albums. First, Talking Gong, a spellbinding New Music USA-funded debut album of her new poly-stylistic trio with Claire Chase and Alex Peh. Then Walking on Water, a deeply moving homage to the victims of the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsumani created in collaboration with visual artist Makoto Fujimura which uses the sounds of water as a central musical element. Both of these albums were recorded in studios over the course of last summer as COVID-19 cases were raging; musicians were tested before each session, remained masked whenever they could, and maintained physical distances. Susie Ibarra was also able to continue another strand of her output, her remarkable series of solo percussion explorations. An extraordinary performance she gave in a surreally empty hall at William Paterson College back in February is thankfully still available to stream. And a few months before that, in December 2020, she launched the Composers Now Impact series of composer presentations with a fascinating audio-video stream about her music.

Obviously we talked about these unprecedented times in which we are still living; it’s pretty much impossible not to talk about it. But we also talked about a wide range of other topics during the hour we spent together over Zoom. The very first time I ever heard Susie Ibarra, she was part of the legendary David S. Ware Quartet alongside Matt Shipp and William Parker. So I was eager to find out more about how she found herself in her 20s as part of this legendary free jazz quartet as an equal partner in what many aficionados consider to be some of the most enduring music of the late 1990s. I was also curious to learn more about her stint playing with the New Jersey indie rock band Yo La Tengo and the collaborative improvisatory trio Mephista she performed in with pianist Sylvie Courvoisier and laptop artist Ikue Mori.

An undercurrent that runs throughout Susie Ibarra’s career trajectory is that many of the activities she was engaging in–performing in genres such as free jazz, particularly as a drummer–were unusual for a woman back in the 1990s and early 2000s. Her memories about that era were particularly illuminating:

“Having been a young musician, I definitely went through it, like with the naivete of all of a sudden having to wake up to that–wow, oh, the world is like this. Because I was raised by a very strong mother. She was a doctor and grew up in World War II in Manila. She’s very bright. She skipped three grades. She graduated from med school when she was 22. It was never like: ‘Susie, you can’t do this because you’re a woman.’ I didn’t come from that culture. So I was really lucky. Really lucky. Because in that particular style, whatever genre of jazz it is, it’s very socially difficult to a point where you think: Well, I can be empathetic and supportive to issues that are going on, but I also know that what my life path is is different than other people who are born into their life paths. So I also can’t just take on giant, heavy stones on my back that are not going to serve a purpose or be useful for anything. So initially, I think I just loved so much a lot of this music and playing, and I was also raised in a certain way. I didn’t see it that way. But I certainly got schooled on how society saw it. And then it’s the question of: do I want to accept that, or do I want to not accept that.”

Another thing that has given her tremendous strength and perseverance has been her immersion into her Philippine heritage. As she would later learn when she began to spend time absorbing the myriad musical practices in the Philippines, percussion instruments were traditionally played by women. So the way that cultures have gendered certain musical instruments is by no means universal. However, being born in California, raised in Houston, and coming of age as an artist in New York City, no single cultural force has exclusively shaped her approach to making music.

“I grew up with a hybrid culture, so it’s what I know,” she explains. “I don’t know anything otherwise. … I love that aesthetic that everybody has their own thing that’s really special and it’s different.”

New Music USA · SoundLives — Susie Ibarra: Hybrid Culture
Frank J. Oteri in conversation with Susie Ibarra
June 18, 2021—Noon EDT via Zoom
Via a Zoom Conference Call
Additional voiceovers by Brigid Pierce; audio editing by Anthony Nieves

Third Coast Percussion: The Collaborative Process

David Skidmore, Peter Martin, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors (Photo by Saverio Truglia)

In the first couple of weeks following the global lock down, we hadn’t completely figured out how we were going to produce the extensive NewMusicBox Cover conversations that we launch on the first day of every month—we were too busy finishing up work on our talk with Nathalie Joachim which we were lucky enough to record just a week before all this began. But we knew that these in-depth conversations about new music were something we had to keep going somehow, especially since the next one was slated for May 1, the 21st anniversary of the launch of this publication online. What to do? So much of what has made these conversations so exciting is the intimacy, empathy, and camaraderie that emerges from an in-person encounter, often in the homes of the people with whom we are talking. But we’re also well aware that this method of recording these talks also comes with limitations. There are tons of exciting people making fascinating music all over this country whom we have wanted to feature on these pages, but we’ve usually been limited to folks who either live in the greater New York Tri-State area, are a possible day trip along the Northeastern Corridor in either direction, or have come to NYC for a performance (and those talks are obviously not at home and so run the risk of feeling less personal).

I’ve long been a fan of Third Coast Percussion which marks its 15th anniversary this year and I’ve been eager to talk with their four members for quite some time about their collaborations with Augusta Read Thomas, David T. Little, Donnacha Dennehy, Philip Glass, and more recently Devonté Hynes (a.k.a. Blood Orange) and JLin, as well as their own compositions. (I’m particularly enamored with TCP member David Skidmore’s immersive Common Patterns in Uncommon Time.) However, TCP is based in Chicago and is constantly touring around the country, so the dots never connected.

Then very soon after concerts started getting cancelled all over the country and we all began sheltering in place, TCP started presenting live stream concerts on their YouTube channel which were really motivational, particularly their second one on March 28 which—in addition to featuring the amazing pieces written for them by Glass, Hynes, and JLin, plus an awesome original by TCP’s Peter Martin—was a fundraiser for the New Music Solidary Fund which New Music USA administers. So I just had to figure out a way to make them the May 2020 NewMusicBox Cover somehow! Thanks to the Zoom platform and the fact that each of these four guys—Dave, Peter, Robert Dillon, and Sean Connors—was tech savvy enough to record themselves separately with microphones and camcorders, we were able to record a substantive conversation online from five different locations that looks and feels almost like we were all together… almost.

We talked about a very wide range of topics. They started off by sharing stories about how TCP introduces audiences to percussion instruments and how they each came to devote their lives to making music. Then we engaged in a heady series of dos and don’ts for writing and performing percussion music. After that, we spent a long time exploring some details of the staggering range of music they have nurtured from an extraordinarily wide range of creators including in-depth commentary about some of their own original compositions. Finally, we had a heart to heart about what they all have been doing to cope in these unprecedented and uncertain times that everyone has been thrust into. I hope you find what they each had to say as poignant and inspirational as I have.

[Ed. note: To accommodate a broad range of experiential modalities, we’ve included audio links for the entire conversation as well as a complete text transcription. Click on “Read the Full Transcript” and you will also be rewarded with a few video clips from the talk and well as several performances! To facilitate access, both the audio and the text have been divided into four discrete sections, each of which is self-contained, in order to make the experience somewhat more manageable since the total discussion ran a little over 100 minutes. We encourage you to bookmark this page in your browser and return to it multiple times rather than going through all of it in one go, unless you’re extremely intrepid! – FJO]

Playing the Brake Drum: A very short guide to percussion parts for composers who write for band

An identified person walking behind a large gong, only the person's socks are visible.

In the past two weeks, I’ve shared some of my experiences during my two years as a master’s degree composition student, and the lens through which I experienced college life as a student and mostly-composer after spending many years as a professor and mostly-percussionist.

For my third post in this series of four, I’ll turn to a lighter subject but one very near to my heart: percussion parts in band music!

A general sense of flexibility leads to good long-term relationships with band directors.

I have performed in the percussion section of bands, on and off, since the seventh grade. Over a span of 25+ years, this includes performing in a wide variety of groups, from junior high to high school, intermediate and advanced college bands, and community bands. I have seen the worst of the worst in percussion parts, and also some of the best. My experiences working with a variety of bands as a composer have led me to an even deeper understanding of the need for clear and practical percussion writing, and how a general sense of flexibility leads to good long-term relationships with directors—directors who, inevitably, are interested in programming newer music!

As composers of band music, treading the line between “serving my artistic vision of the music” and “let’s make sure the percussionists don’t want to stab me in the eye with a triangle beater” can be daunting. I hope to provide some very practical writing advice for those looking to write for band, as well as for those who may want to fix their major sins and/or minor transgressions ex post facto. I do not propose to offer actual composing advice. This is rather a cut-and-dry guide for percussion scoring in band music, and it is not comprehensive. Books are available to further illuminate percussion writing. There are points and subtleties that I will miss, and I foresee many possible arguments in the comments section, which I welcome, because it shows that composers are actually thinking about percussion instead of writing willy-nilly while thinking, “I’m sure they’ll figure it out!”

I would like to thank my Twitter friends for providing additional suggestions, many of which are included throughout this article.

The full text of Olivia Kieffer's Twitter call for comments


Auxiliary Percussion

A whirly tube

We all hate whirly tubes. They are physically unpleasant and difficult to play, they break easily, and nobody can really hear them unless at least four people are playing them at once and the rest of the band is silent. This advice goes for crystal wine glasses as well; we hate those, too.

No liquids in the percussion section, please.

Anything requiring a bucket or tub of water (a.k.a. water gong or any other thing you’ve decided needs to be dipped in water) is murder on our backs and a danger to anyone who walks on the floor. Waterphones are also unacceptable. No liquids in the percussion section, please.

There are wind chimes, and there is a bell tree. They are different. Mark trees do not actually exist; we just guess whether you actually mean wind chimes or bell tree.

When considering writing for more than eight tom-toms, ask yourself why, then pare it down to four toms.

Brake drums are beastly heavy. They can break your foot if they fall off a trap table. Consider using just one, and suggest it be mounted on a snare stand.

Pitched gongs are lovely instruments but do not belong in band. They require giant stands or multiple trap tables. We play tam-tam. Asking for more than two tam-tams is asking for trouble.

A waterphone photographed from above, which shows the filling port for the water.

A waterphone photographed from above, which shows the filling port for the water. (Wikimedia commons image by Hangklang)

Mallet Percussion

Imagine a percussion section that is bowless, and you will find a sea of happy faces in the back.

Bowing crotales is absolutely the worst. They are round. Challenge: don’t write for bows at all. Imagine a percussion section that is bowless, and you will find a sea of happy faces in the back, and you will never experience that heartbreaking moment when the note simply won’t sound.

Nobody in the history of the world will ever hear the low notes on a five-octave marimba in a band context. Moving a five-octave marimba onto a stage is a backbreaking, two-person ordeal that every composer should have to physically do themselves, over and over again, until they never write for five-octave marimba again. For marimba in general, do not score it during fortissimo tutti sections. We have to use practically diamond-encrusted mallets to be heard, which ruins the bars and sounds terrible.

While vibraphone with motor can sound truly majestic, understand that vibe motors rarely work when we need them to. We have to plug them in, and there are cords to trip over. Many bands own a vibraphone, but not many own one with a consistently working motor.


Not everyone owns a piccolo timpano. Take the time to figure out whether you need four timpani or whether you really and truly actually need five. Be aware that you may get a well-meaning roto-tom as a replacement for those high pitches.

Marcato-fortissimo low pitches on 32″ timpani distress the heads something terrible, and make the drums sound like cardboard boxes.


It’s rarely the notes that cause percussionists trouble. It’s much more often the careless instrument distribution that is so taxing.

Sometimes a full hour or more of uninterrupted time is needed simply to assign parts.

One thing composers may not completely understand is the important role the percussion part-assigner plays, and how sometimes a full hour or more of uninterrupted time is needed simply to assign parts. Countless times, I have looked at a single set of parts with resignation as I realize how much time it will take to de-tangle the major transgressions just to assign parts among the section players. This is completely unnecessary. We should see a part called “Percussion 1” and hand it to one percussionist. That’s it.

Percussion score? NO! Take the time to make actual parts for a specific number of people. Do not make two players play on the same bass drum, or the same xylophone, meaning: keep one person on xylophone or bass drum the whole time. If you choose to sin and ask the percussionists to load an enormous amount of gear and only play, say, the ratchet once, make it an incredibly special ratchet moment. What we do as percussionists matters, and the schlepping we do matters. Above all, ask yourself, “Am I assuming the percussionists will just figure it out?”  While we are certainly smart enough to figure it out, it’s better for us to spend that time practicing our parts rather than pulling our hair out trying to decipher a careless percussion score.

The schlepping we do matters.

In closing, for any composers who are now feeling the sting of condemnation or are even a bit defensive, I’d like to share the story of the absolute worst percussion scoring I have ever seen. It happened recently, and it should ease your mind. The percussion parts arrived as 14 individual parts. One for bass drum, one for triangle, one for crotales, one for snare drum…you get the picture. As the part-assigner, I was baffled. We had six players, not fourteen. Then, the composer sent a full percussion score. This score simply had a list of instruments on the front, with “Five Players plus Timpani” underneath. The score was 32 pages long and it was, once again, simply instruments stacked vertically. It took me 90 minutes, but I figured out exactly who could play what, when, and where, and there was significant instrument overlap. I shrunk the parts to horizontal (two pages to a page), double-sided printing, and bound them. I had to use highlighters for each person’s part, with arrows pointing to their next instrument change. The thing is, the parts were meticulously notated…a true paradox of care and remarkable laziness.

There is certainly much more to be said about percussion part-making! My hope is that a few of these suggestions will go a long way, and that my words combined with the Twitter posts will illuminate the (often hilarious!) variety of difficulties percussionists come across in our band parts. Godspeed, and good luck!

Exclusive Trailer: Milford Graves Documentary “Full Mantis”

If you read our February 2018 interview with Milford Graves, you may recognize Jake Meginsky’s name. He’s the filmmaker who captured some of the inspired concert footage showing Graves in action, which he generously allowed us to include in our presentation.

Now Meginsky’s Full Mantis, the first-ever feature film about Graves, is set to open nationally on July 13 at Metrograph in New York City, and to celebrate he has shared this exclusive new trailer for the film with us.

Milford Graves and Jake Meginsky will attend the Metrograph screening on the opening night of this theatrical release for a Q and A. The film will then open in Los Angeles on July 27 at Laemmle Royal Beverly Hills. It has screened at the Big Ears Festival, SXSW Film Festival, IFFR Rotterdam, Sheffield Doc Fest, The BFI Southbank, and Lincoln Center’s Art of the Real. It won the Independent Visions prize at the Sarasota Film Festival and the Best Documentary Award at the Oak Cliff Film Festival in Dallas. More planned engagements can be found here.

And if you missed it, be sure and check out Aakash Mittal’s excellent conversation with Graves from earlier this year—Milford Graves: Sounding the Universe.

Andy Akiho: Inside The Instrument

Having a conversation with Andy Akiho is a lot like listening to his music; it’s a high-energy adventure bursting with ideas and full of all sorts of serendipitous synchronicities. The first of these synchronicities is that Andy lives on Monroe Street in Lower Manhattan, which is where we met up with him. This is the same street where John Cage lived when he wrote many of his important compositions for prepared piano and percussion ensembles, idioms that have played a significant role in Andy’s output since Cage is one of his heroes. And perhaps an even more extraordinary coincidence is that Cage wrote those pieces at the same age that Andy is now and that Andy only discovered all of this after he moved to Monroe Street.

Of course, while Andy’s earliest compositions were scored for percussion ensemble and one of his most significant pieces to date is the solo prepared piano tour-de-force Vicki/y, the instrument that has figured in Andy’s music more than any other is the steel drum. As it turns out, around the same time that Cage was creating his landmark prepared piano and percussion ensemble works in the late 1930s and early 1940s, musicians in Trinidad started incorporating struck pieces of metal into their ensembles, eventually tuning discarded industrial oil containers and thus was born the steel drum.

But again, Andy becoming obsessed with steel drums also happened somewhat by accident. He was initially attracted to hip-hop and rock—his older sister played in various bands—when he was growing up in South Carolina. But at college, also in South Carolina, he got exposed to an extremely broad range of approaches to percussion including bebop and West African drumming, and then a couple of his teachers introduced him to steel drums. After he graduated, he went down to Trinidad to immerse himself further and was hooked for life.

Andy eventually found himself in New York City arranging music for weddings in the Caribbean-American community for large ensembles of steel drums. But he wanted to expand his timbral palette and find a way to combine steel drums with other instruments. Another chance encounter, a conversation with his former classmate Baljinder Sekhon, convinced him to audition for the Bang on a Can Summer Residency Program and to apply to Manhattan School of Music to pursue a master’s degree. He was accepted to both and found some formidable mentors in David Cossin and Julia Wolfe, with whom he eventually also studied composition privately.

The rest, as they say, is history. Though not completely. Andy’s story is still being written. He is still trying out new ideas and is open to discovering other approaches. He’s eager to write more vocal music, as well as score a film. But he still usually begins almost every composition he writes—whether it’s a string quartet or a concerto for two ping pong players and orchestra—by tinkering around with ideas on the steel pan. But not always, as he explained:

I’ll do other things, too, like I’ll go to an instrument I can’t play, like a piano, and come up with material and then apply that to the pan. I try to do it all different ways. But I do want to say it’s not weird to me; it’s weirder to me to think about a guitar, even though that seems like it’s more linear. If I try to pick up a guitar and try to think of melody, or learn it, or understand where the notes for the chords are, I’m a mess. At the same time, I accidentally discover some things that I wouldn’t do on the pan because I’ve been playing it for so many years. You go to certain comfortable places. Taking yourself out of that comfort zone can bring new life to the vocabulary.

May 10, 2018 at 1:00 p.m.
Andy Akiho in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
Recorded in Akiho’s apartment in Two Bridges, Manhattan
Video and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcription by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  I was thrilled when I learned that you live on Monroe Street because this is where John Cage once lived.

Andy Akiho: A year after I was here I found that out doing a paper at Princeton about his Sonatas and Interludes that he’d lived here. He was the exact age I was when I was doing the paper.  So I felt really connected somehow. He’s one of my heroes. I’ve always felt that way, but especially now. It was like “You’ve got to be kidding me, because [Monroe Street]’s only three blocks long.

FJO:  But sadly, the building where he lived is no longer there.

AA:  I walked over to see.  It’s a school now, I believe.

FJO:  He was forced to move when the building was torn down in 1953.

AA:  Oh, I didn’t realize that.

FJO:  But it’s interesting that you didn’t know about this until after you moved here. It’s quite a coincidence, since during the years he lived here he wrote most of his prepared piano pieces and many of his pieces for percussion ensemble—and both the prepared piano and percussion ensembles have figured very prominently in your own music.

AA:  I’ve always been influenced by those pieces, even before I was a composer.

FJO:  I’d like to learn more about the period before you were a composer. I know that you were trained as a percussionist, but how did you become interesting in being a musician in the first place?

AA:  My older sister practically raised me; she’s almost exactly ten years older than me.  And when she was a teenager, she was like kind of a rock star.  She never took it too seriously, but she had a double bass and a drum set and she was playing in bands. I wanted to be like her, so she would teach me drums.  And that’s kind of how I started.  I think I was around nine or something, but then I got a little obsessed with it. So by the time I got in middle school and then high school, I drummed all the time.  I couldn’t read music, but I was trying to drum, starting with drumlines and then I started learning to read notes more in college.

FJO:  And you have a couple of performance degrees as a percussionist.

“I was kind of obsessed, so I just majored in percussion.”

AA:  There was such a gap. I never thought I was going back to school. I went to University of South Carolina. That’s where I grew up and I just went to college where I grew up. I was very fortunate to even have an opportunity to go to college back then. I was kind of obsessed, so I just majored in percussion. But I got involved in a lot of different ensembles—everything that had to do with drumming: playing West African drums, steel pan, orchestra, band, a little bit of everything.

FJO:  I was wondering about how you first got involved with steel pan because I wouldn’t necessarily associate steel pan with South Carolina.

AA:  It was a really awesome time when I was in school there.  It was just a lot of new opportunities and a lot of great influences. We had a Professor Chris Lee who was really into West African drumming and steel pan and going to Trinidad.  And my professor down there, Jim Hall, was really into that, too.  So they had a steel pan program. Around the time when my colleagues and I went to school, we were really into different things.  I was the steel pan guy, one guy was the jazz guy, and another guy was more the composer-percussionist.  We were all different, but while we were there, we were into everything.  I was probably even more into West African drumming then; my goals and plans were to go to Guinea like a lot of my friends did.  But for some reason, I really got into pans, and then I went to Trinidad a lot, especially right after undergrad.

FJO:  So you studied with players in Trinidad.

AA:  When I was finishing up, I also did a student exchange program. I went to North Texas for a year and I got really into bebop. I wanted to play steel pans with that.  I think it was the combination of being really inspired by the jazz musicians out there and being inspired to bring something new to steel pan, then going to Trinidad and playing with large orchestras and feeling that energy.  It was like a full orchestra of these things; it was symphonic. I played I guess the equivalent of a violin in the orchestra for the steel pans.  Everything was taught by rote.  I remember one year I learned my part from like basically the “cellist.”  That’s how well they knew everybody’s parts.  And these are like crazy, intricate things. It was almost easier to learn by rote than reading because you feel the rhythms different.  It’s really internal.

Andy Akiho's Spiderweb fourth and fifth lead steel pan

FJO:  So, perhaps a dumb question, is there a consistency from steel pan to steel pan about where the different notes are?

AA:  No, that’s a really good question.  There is, but there’s a lot of differences, too.  There’s a tradition of so many changes. For example, my steel pan is called a tenor pan, but it’s actually soprano range.  It starts from middle C, and it goes to about the F above the treble staff.

FJO:  Is it fully chromatic?

AA:  Fully chromatic.  In Trinidad, they normally start on the D above that, because they can pierce through the orchestra more.  So for range, and to play with 30 others—any of the altos, the “cellos,” the bass—it actually sounds better orchestrationally and acoustically in a different range.  Mine’s called a Spiderweb fourth and fifth lead, so it’s a circle of fifths, upside down from the diagrams you see in schools.  My C is right next to me, and then it goes in fourths and fifths.  But that’s a newer invention.  It’s probably 40-ish years old now, 40 or 50.  Before that, there was an Invader’s lead, and on that the octaves aren’t even next to each other.  It’s incredible how it’s set up. There’s like this random F-sharp right in the middle. But it actually sounds better, because of the way the overtones work.  But it wasn’t as practical as a learning device, because it was just everywhere.  And they have other pans.  I wrote a steel pan concerto for Liam Teague, and his is completely different. So I took a picture of his, and wrote the notes and put it up on the wall to work out something idiomatic.  His is a completely different pan and he’s the only one in the world that plays that one.  But they’re all about the same range.

FJO:  So no one else could play the piece you wrote for him.

AA:  No, I’ve played it.  I always had it in mind that I wanted it to work on both.  So it was more like if I was doing something with four mallets, I just wanted to make sure he could reach it, that it was physically possible.

FJO:  Another thing that’s really fascinating about the placement of the notes on all these steel pans is that they don’t go left to right from low to high like many instruments around the world or even from low in the middle to high on opposite ends like African koras or mbiras.

AA:  Well, if you’re thinking in patterns or shapes or colors, it’s just another platform.  Like with the human language, we might structure a sentence different: you put the verb first or you put the noun first. It’s the same kind of thing.  I feel fortunate that when I was first learning how to read pitches, it was the same time I was learning how to play steel pan. I was quicker at learning pan than I was at marimba or piano, because it just came to me; it was all right there.  With marimba, I got so worried about missing a note that’s a millimeter off.  But with the pan, I just felt like it was all right there, and I just felt really comfortable.  So it made sense to me more.

FJO:  The tactile element of it is very interesting. The other thing I wonder about, too, is that because of the way it’s patterned, it probably gets you to think about different combinations of notes than you would if you were creating from a piano or a marimba.  People always talk about how Chopin’s music is so pianistic; it’s really based on the tactile experience of him sitting at a piano and working through ideas. As a result, certain kinds of figurations emerge in that music which are directly based on how the instrument is designed.  Same with like Paganini on the violin, Jimi Hendrix on the electric guitar, Ravi Shankar on the sitar, all the great virtuosos who created their own music.  But because steel pan has this other way of setting things up, when you then take those ideas and work them out for other instruments, say, writing for a string quartet, since steel pan is in the DNA of how you think, it creates a different kind of music.

AA:  Exactly. That’s why I feel very fortunate that I can come up with material on the pan for other instruments.  I recently wrote a clarinet quartet piece for David Schifrin and there’s a whole movement that’s a clarinet solo.  I wrote it all on pan.  Then I worked out phrasing and slurs, but it was all on the pan first.  Hand written, then I adapted it to clarinet. But I didn’t change the notes or anything.  So it was really coming from that place. I wrote a saxophone quartet one time, and it was all written on the pan.  All the parts.  As was my first string quartet.

“You go to certain comfortable places. Taking yourself out of that comfort zone can bring new life to the vocabulary.”

I’ll do other things, too, like I’ll go to an instrument I can’t play, like a piano, and come up with material and then apply that to the pan.  I try to do it all different ways. But I do want to say it’s not weird to me; it’s weirder to me to think about a guitar, even though that seems like it’s more linear. If I try to pick up a guitar and try to think of melody, or learn it, or understand where the notes for the chords are, I’m a mess.  At the same time, I accidentally discover some things that I wouldn’t do on the pan because I’ve been playing it for so many years. You go to certain comfortable places.  Taking yourself out of that comfort zone can bring new life to the vocabulary.

FJO:  You mentioned earlier that when you were in school there was a composer-percussion guy and you were the steel pan guy, but you became a composer-percussion guy, too.  When did that happen?

AA:  I looked up my friend Baljinder Sekhon and he was going to Eastman after we were roommates in undergrad. After we finished, I moved to New York eventually, this was within a few years, and he moved to Rochester to study composition.  He started taking that more seriously than percussion.  And while he was up there, I was here playing on the streets and playing in weddings in the Caribbean community.  I was also arranging for these steel orchestras in Brooklyn.  I would arrange stuff for like a hundred players, but it was only steel pans.  I loved it, but I felt like I wanted to experiment a little more with timbres.  I’d love to write for a violin one day, or cello. But I didn’t know anybody. I remember calling him one day in January, and I was like, “Man, it would be kind of cool to write for other instruments.” And he was like: “You got to go back to school, because you don’t know one classical musician in New York.”  I’m like: “No, I only know the Caribbean community.”

So he told me about the contemporary performance program they started in 2007 at Manhattan School [of Music].  I’d been out of school for over six years by then. I hadn’t read a sheet of music in six years.  I was just playing gigs and trying to make it as a steel pan artist in the city.  When he told me about that program, he also told me about [the] Bang on a Can [Summer Residency Program]. I found some old footage of me seven years ago in college playing and I submitted that. I had like two days to submit it and I didn’t know what I was submitting it to.  I just knew it was cool because he did it.  And I got lucky.  I got to do that, and then I went and auditioned at Manhattan School. I had to relearn marimba and relearn percussion. I went and auditioned there and that’s where I met classical musicians. And I was really inspired because I was around a great group of really hungry and inspiring musicians.  So I just started writing for them.  It was just very organic.  It wasn’t like I’m going to try to study composition.  But at that same time, I was fortunate enough to be able to study with Julia Wolfe outside of school.  So I was in school as the contemporary percussion guy, playing with all my friends in that program and then I was able to write for them in a very awesome experimental laboratory in school there.

A view of the "office" part of Andy Akiho's apartment which includes a posted of Bruce Lee, a MIDI keyboard on its side, a computer terminal, some music stands, and handwritten scores.

FJO:  Nice.  The earliest piece you list on your website, Phatamachickenlick, predates all of that. I’ve looked at part of the score, but there’s no audio for it. Is that your first piece?

AA:  I guess officially, yeah.  I mean, that was my drumline days.  I used to skip class in high school and just go in the woods with a snare drum and play for hours.  That just came out of me playing with my friends, coming up with rudimentary solos.  It’s not a good piece. I didn’t ever think of it as a composition or anything.  It was just like: “Hey, play this.”  I could write out the rhythms, because I knew rhythms, but I couldn’t read notes back then or anything.

FJO:  But you’ve got a score of it on your website.

AA:  Yes.  It’s fun.  I think literally everything I’ve ever written is available, unless it was like some random assignment like: “Hey, write for your friends in one hour for tomorrow.”  Maybe I should take that down, but I’ve kept it up there.

FJO:  So do people actually order it?

AA:  Yeah, I got two orders yesterday.  But that’s also a coincidence, because not many people do. I always feel bad. I’m like: “Man, I hope they don’t think this is like a real piece.” But it is what it is.  It’s a duet; it’s a rudimentary snare drum duet that I wrote in my hard core drumline years.

FJO:  And then there’s another really early piece for much bigger ensemble called Hip-Hopracy.

AA:  I consider that my first composition.  I definitely didn’t consider myself an aspiring composer or anything.  I just wanted to write a piece for my senior recital at University of South Carolina.  So I wrote it for all my friends I was telling you about.  We were a really tight crew.  And I was like: “I’d love for you all to play on my recital.” So I wrote for the whole percussion department and wrote each individual part based on them.  It was more like Duke Ellington style.  Like you’re the right guy, you’re the right gal.  My girlfriend at the time was in a hip hop dance class.  She was a dancer.  So they choreographed it; it was a kind of collaborative thing.  We were always working with dancers.  It was just a way to end my recital and a fun way to be creative.  What’s funny is that piece is like Cage or Lou Harrison, but I didn’t even know really what that was back then. I knew when I studied it, or when I played in percussion ensemble, getting those influences. It’s written for ceramic bowls. I’m still writing for these same bowls.  I literally have like ten sets right here.  I remember going into stores back then and picking out the right pitches, then I based the piece off of those.  I just found sounds; it was just a natural way to do it.  I could do that before I could write on a piano, for sure.

A group of ceramic bowls in back of a sampling keyboard.

FJO:  So that piece is more like Cage and Harrison than hip hop, even though you titled it Hip-Hopracy.

“I grew up on rock and hip hop, and probably everything else except classical music.”

AA:  I just called it that because it was for a hip hop class. It wasn’t trying to do anything. But I grew up on rock and hip hop, and probably everything else except classical music. I never grew up listening to Beethoven or anything. I do now.

FJO:  So you didn’t have a connection to so-called classical music.  But what you wound up doing was finding a way to incorporate the ideas that you had into the medium of writing down music that other people play, which is kind of an odd way of doing music to most of the world.  You said before that you wanted to write for violin.  You thought it would be cool.

AA:  I guess it’s not that straight forward, even though I said that.  It was more that I wanted to experiment with pan, mixing with other timbres, whether it’s a ceramic bowl or a violin. I just wanted to have a bigger playground to work in and different timbres to explore.  It wasn’t just for the sake of doing it or trying to write for strings.  I really enjoy just working with any kind of new timbre combination, so it actually felt very natural and organic.  It didn’t seem that odd to me because at first, it was to write pieces for myself to be able to play with friends.  It was almost like being in a rock band when you’re a teenager: “Let’s come up with some material.  I got these ideas. Hey, you play this on the bass.” That kind of thing.  But I was old enough to know that I need to be pretty clear about it.  I was pretty aware that the notation had to be pretty clear.  So I learned as I was doing it.  I didn’t know what I was doing, but I would meet with friends, and be like: “Hey, what’s the range of this?  What’s possible?  Can I write a few things down? Can I record a few things?” I would learn how the instruments worked based on having to do it.

FJO:  So some practical things about making these instrument work together—two things immediately come to mind if you’re combining strings and pan. There’s finding the appropriate acoustical balance, getting the volumes right, so there are questions of where to position everyone.  Are there things that work, things that don’t work?  And then there’s the whole question of intonation. How closely do the pans match the pitches of the other players?

AA:  With pan, there are so many overtones that I think it can blend with any family of instruments.  And if it’s tuned really well, I think there’s a lot of potential for that.  It’s funny because I think about these questions more now than I did then.  Then I was just naïve and just going for it.  And I think that was more exciting sometimes.  I didn’t think about intonation.  I didn’t think about balance, or any of that.  I was just like: “Let’s just do this.” I didn’t have anything to lose, either.  It wasn’t like I had a commission deadline.  It was like: “Oh, we’re going to have a concert at school; let’s put something together.”  It was a lot of experimentation without any pressure of it having to work.  And for some reason, sometimes it worked better.  It was not a fatal mistake if you do something wrong.

FJO:  So what would be something wrong?

“I do things wrong all the time.”

AA:  That’s all subjective. I don’t know. I do things wrong all the time.  In the first piece I wrote at Manhattan, I just literally tried to do everything.  There was a huge fan that a trumpet played through.  There was a 16-foot pipe that the trumpet played through and it bounced off the walls.  And a contrabass flute—the first time I wrote for flute, it was for contrabass flute, alto flute, and regular flute—plus trumpet, steel pan, percussion, piano, and bass clarinet.

FJO:  Yeah, that sounds like a real practical piece.

AA:  And we were also shattering glass everywhere.

FJO:  I didn’t notice that piece on your website.  That one’s not up there, is it?

AA:  I’m not sure.

FJO:  So you didn’t put everything up.

AA:  I might have, if I had the parts, then it’s up somewhere.  Or I have to find the parts maybe.

A page from a handwritten score by Andy Akiho.

FJO:  So the next step after writing these pieces to play with friends is that you started writing pieces that you were not playing in.  How did that whole transition happen?

AA:  This was all a very compact year.  This is 2007 and it was all pieces that I played in.  And in 2008, I got into the Bang on a Can [Summer] Festival, as a composer this time.  My first year was as a performer.  I somehow faked my way in.  Got lucky.  Then I wrote all year.  And, I don’t know, for some reason they let me in as a composer in 2008, and the instrumentation they gave me didn’t have myself in it.  It was for the performer fellows. The first time I didn’t write for myself was that piece.  It’s called to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem.  I don’t even think I started it on the pan.  It was a really interesting exercise for me.

FJO:  So you started composing it in your head.

AA:  No, I played around the piano.  I remember I experimented a lot with the vibraphone, and I was messing around with rubber bands a lot back then.  I put these rubber bands on there.  And I just kind of improvised for hours and hours, then I started to record myself.

FJO:  But you eventually rearranged that piece for percussion ensemble.

AA:  Yeah, that was for the University of Nebraska, Lincoln.  Dave Hall, who runs the percussion department there, asked me to write a new piece. But it was a very short timeline and I wouldn’t have had time to rewrite a brand new piece.  He was really into harlem, so somehow we came up with the idea to just make a new arrangement of it. But I didn’t want it to be just an arrangement. So I was like, “Let’s take the same music, but I’m really going orchestrate it, not just make it work, not just take the clarinet part and put it here.  Just rework the entire piece.” The piano part is pretty much exactly the same, though.  That’s the one thing I kept.  I spent a day with them working out some of the kinks, and then they performed it, and they did that video and I thought it came out really nice.  It was really great.

FJO:  I think so, too.  What’s interesting is that it’s clearly the same piece, you can hear the melodies and harmonies, but it has a different flavor somehow.

AA:  Yeah, definitely.

FJO:  The timbres really shape what you’re hearing.

AA:  Yeah, it’s so important.  I mean timbre and rhythm are the world I live in.

FJO:  That’s the mindset of a percussionist.

AA:  Yeah, I guess so.

FJO:  Another key ingredient is the tactile element. Of course playing any instrument is a tactile experience but there’s something about percussion that heightens that aspect, I think. And I would venture to say that your sensitivity to this tactile element informs how you write for other instruments. One example that is particularly striking to me is the two-harp piece you wrote for Duo Scorpio, Two Bridges. It’s totally unexpected, because it isn’t what harp music usually sounds like, because you approach the harps like percussion instruments, which is why I think it’s so cool.

AA:  Oh, thanks.  I met with them many times.  The harp or the piano, anything I can touch and feel, even strings, they’re the closest thing to percussion to me.  If I can start to understand it and wrap my head around it, I feel I can work with that instrumentation better, so I was lucky.  I was up at Avaloch Music Institute up in New Hampshire and I was finishing up my piece for Duo Scorpio, and there was a harp duo there, a different harp duo.  They went out to lunch one day, and I was like: “Can I mess around?  I might use some credit cards and stuff.  Is it cool?”  And they were like: “It’s cool.”  They knew I would respect the instruments, and I wrote the whole first movement in like an hour or two.  I videotaped myself just playing on these techniques, messing around with a finger cymbal, a chopstick—I created that first movement just from this experimental place.

It’s also kind of parallel to bridges being built.  We’re in [the] Two Bridges [neighborhood] right now, and that’s what the piece is about.  So the Brooklyn Bridge is those kind of industrial sounds. But then the second movement is all harmonics. I met with them and learned all I could about how that technique worked—the best kind of range for it. And they taught me how the pedals work. And then in the third movement, I just tried to put everything together.

Andy Akiho under the Manhattan Bridge.

FJO:  Now the titles for the first and third movements are numbers.  Are those the years those bridges were built?

AA:  I think the years that they were officially opened.

FJO:  But that one in the middle that’s all harmonics you called “Audio Sun.”

AA:  I just pictured being in the middle of the East River—it would be kind of gross.  But if you were down there, playing these bridges as if they were harps, the reverberations you would hear underneath the water would be very echo-y. I had to try to capture that.

FJO:  There’s a guy named Joseph Bertolozzi who makes music from playing on actual bridges.

AA:  Oh, that’s cool.

FJO:  But you’ve come up with this other idea, using the harps as a metaphor for the bridges. It’s also really effective and just beautiful.

AA:  Aw, thank you.

FJO:  But it’s interesting because I heard the piece way before I saw the video of the performance, so I didn’t know how a lot of those sounds were being made because I couldn’t see it. It still totally worked as abstract music thing.  Another piece of yours along those lines is Vicki/y, the piece you did for Vicky Chow.

AA:  It was inspired by Vicky Chow and Vicki Ray.  When I was at Bang on a Can in 2007 as a performer, Vicki Ray did a masterclass on preparation, and it reminded me of learning about this in undergrad with Cage and stuff.  So it brought all that back.  She was showing us that you could bow the strings and you could pluck them. Then she showed us the dime and I was just blown away with the way the dime sounded woven in between the three strings in the piano.  That stuck with me.  After that, when I started school at Manhattan, I met Vicky Chow.  She’s phenomenal.  I was always inspired by her being able to play in an ensemble and I learned from her and a lot of the other musicians in that program.  And then that next year, I wrote a piece based on those techniques.

FJO:  So you didn’t come up with the dime thing.

AA:  No, I didn’t.  Though, what was crazy is I really couldn’t find examples of that.  I was influenced by Vox Balaenae by George Crumb.  That blew me away, too, but I was trying to find examples. I didn’t really see anything, so I really credit Vicki Ray for showing me that.  And what I tried do is I experimented with exactly where it was. I found out if you pushed [the dime] all the way up the sound board, or whatever the end of where the strings are, it keeps the fundamental, but it has crazy overtones, so it’s basically like a gamelan or like a steel pan.  It’s like a super-saturated steel pan.  So I felt at home writing for that, and then I just based the whole piece on that.  It’s only on eight pitches, but I didn’t want to create it all to be about that.

“A lot of people think I’m trying to do novelty things, but it’s really the world I live in where I feel I can create the most.”

A lot of people think I’m trying to do novelty things, but it’s really the world I live in where I feel I can create the most.  It’s not just a cool effect. A lot of people will think it’s like trying to be some kind of gimmick, but it’s really just where I feel at home.  So I did that and I experimented with it.  I created this scale that was like a palindrome, and worked around with that.  I remember finishing the last page—it was all hand written back then—and handing it to Vicky about two hours before the concert at the Stone.  I think it was November 1st, 2008.  I remember handing her that last page and she killed it.

FJO:  Yeah, her performance of that piece is awesome. But before we leave the dime thing, dimes are so thin. I’m curious if you experimented with other coins: quarters, nickels.

AA:  I think I did, but I realized really quickly that even a penny’s too big.  It will touch the other strings.  Even a dime sometimes can be too big.  I did a piece for Anthony de Mare, an adaptation of the prologue of Into the Woods by Sondheim. There are two dimes and a poster tack. I remember we recorded up at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the dime was actually too big.  It was touching the other strings.  I remember going to a car shop when we went on lunch break and they were soldering stuff and welding. I found some washers and I was like, “Hey man, can you take a millimeter off this?”  We just needed a little less than a dime.  Zzzzzhh.  I went back and it worked perfectly, because it was thin enough. It was as thin as a dime, and it worked, and it kept the fundamental without making the other pitches ring, too.

FJO:  I thought you were going to say you went to a convenience store, got some change and tried other dimes, since they’re not all necessarily exactly the same.

AA:  That’s true.  Yeah. But I needed to take off more than just the little nuances.  For some reason, the strings were thin in that model of piano.  I never really had that problem with dimes before.

FJO:  Interesting.  Once again, this is another thing that no one would know if they only experienced it on an audio recording. Now, with Vicki/y, I heard Vicky Chow’s recording of it before I knew how any of those sounds were made and I hadn’t seen a score for it, but then I saw the video for it you posted online which lets everyone in on its secrets. It was really interesting to actually see how the sounds were being created, but the video is actually so much more than that; it’s almost like a pop music video.

AA:  Oh, thank you.  Gabriel Gomez did that video and did a really incredible job.  He’s a friend of Vicky’s, and she really loved the work he did before.  He works in all kinds of mediums.  Definitely not just music.  He did a really cool film with Robert Black, and we were just blown away, and we all kind of hit it off when we first were talking.  We set up a Dropbox folder and put a bunch of videos in that inspired us, just random stuff, not necessarily music videos and photos, and a description of what I was thinking with the piece, and he just came up with this very beautiful narrative.

FJO:  One of the details I love about this is that it’s clearly her performance, but it’s your piece, and the film weaves you into it as the composer; you’re like this like creepy bystander.

AA:  I know.  I’m such a creeper in that film.  It’s hard to watch that, because it’s hard to see me on something like that.  But Vicky’s an incredible artist. She came up with that transfer.  It was just a really beautiful concept. We filmed some of it in New Haven, in East Rock Park, and we saw this blue heron.  And then he incorporated that in the film, too.

The white piano we used in the end of that is the one I found on 131 and Broadway, when I lived in West Harlem.  I lived on 133 and Broadway and found that piano outside of a church; I saw it there for like two days.  So I went and asked.  I was like: “What are you guys doing with this thing?”  And they were like: “You can take it.” I never owned a piano in my life.  I pushed it up the hill, right by the 1 train, on these really crappy wheels that were all rusted.  Luckily my building had an elevator.

Every note had three notes because every string was so out of tune.  A friend of mine was in town from West Virginia that tunes pans.  He tuned the piano; it was the first time he was tuning a piano.  So then I had that piano, that same white piano, and that’s how I wrote Vicki/y.  I wrote it on that primarily.  I was messing with it.  It was a cool piano.  And I would just put the dimes in and everything.  So then we were like: “We got to use this in a video.” It was living in New Haven because I was there for two years and my landlord let me keep it up there in the house that she owned.  I called her to say we’re going to do a video and we want to finish it up here. So we took that piano out of there, did the video at East Rock Park and then we left the piano there.  We left it in the woods.  I don’t know why.  We just thought it would be cool.  But then my friend Sam and his friend Molly wanted to get the piano, so it’s in Brooklyn now, I think.  They got it the very next day.  They got a U-Haul and got it.  So that piano has seen a lot.

FJO:  You don’t have a piano here, except for a Schoenhut toy piano.

AA:  I write with that a lot.

Andy Akiho's Schoenhut toy piano

FJO:  And you also have a big digital keyboard.

AA:  Yeah, there are like seven MIDIs all around.  They just sample.  They get the job done.  I have to picture the orchestra sometimes, the range, like okay, I know the trumpet’s here, I know the trombone, I just kind of picture it and sometimes I work with scales.  Like I have one up there, and it’s got a million stickers with Sharpie notes all over it.  So I can’t even really use it right now.  It’s got duct tape; it’s for me to know where I am.  I was creating on that for one particular piece.

FJO:  Interestingly the thing that those keyboards are probably least good at is working on stuff that’s for an actual piano because you can’t prepare them.

AA:  Oh yeah.

FJO:  You can’t stick dimes in them, or if you do it’ll sound like something else.

AA:  I’ll sample it.  But if I do that, I’ll work at a real piano, and sample each note, and then plug it in there.

FJO:  I have two thoughts that grew out of what you were saying about being this creepy bystander in that video.  Composers who write music that other people play usually just sit in the audience.  You are kind of a bystander.  You’re not part of the performance. But you came from this background of playing music, and all of a sudden you’re now this guy who like lurks in the back.  You wrote the piece, but to a lot of people who aren’t knowledgeable about this stuff, it’s difficult to understand what that means.  Who’s that guy?  What did he do?  Oh, he wrote the piece.

AA:  Oh, right.

FJO:  What does that mean?  I thought that video really effectively captured that relationship.  There’s this transference in the video of that tattoo, which seems like a really nice metaphor for what happens when someone interprets music you wrote down.  The music is transferring to somebody else who realizes it and makes it into sound.

“I could write all day, but it takes a life of its own through the performers—the way they interpret it.”

AA:  It’s also the importance of the performer bringing the piece to life. I could write all day, but it takes a life of its own through the performers—the way they interpret it.  Even more so with pieces where they’re in charge of picking out the timbres.  In that piece, with Vicky and the preparations, the subtlety of moving things a millimeter or two makes a big difference.  There are so many parameters.  I guess you could say that with every piece of music, but I felt that especially with that piece, and working with Vicky, like it was really written for her.

FJO:  We talked about the video being really effective, but you’ve posted extremely well-done videography of performances of many of your compositions.  The video of Duo Scorpio performing Two Bridges is also really tremendous.  And then there’s even a fascinating video for to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem which is this really intense and disturbing silent film about human trafficking.  Overall you’ve really set a high visual standard for how you present your music to the world online, which is unusual in our community I think.

“I can’t sing ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ without going off key.”

AA:  Well, I grew up on MTV.  I would stay up for anything from Yo!  MTV Raps to Headbangers Ball, back when MTV was videos all day long. Most Wanted, I was so into that.  I think I’m more visual than, than aural.  I learn things visually more.  Even when I’m writing music, it’s visual; it’s synesthetic.  I think in shapes and colors way more than I do the actual pitches.  I’m kind of tone deaf.  I can’t sing “Mary Had a Little Lamb” without going off key.  It’s pretty rough.

FJO:  We might have to make you sing that now.

AA:  You don’t want me to do that.  That could be dangerous. This is like so masochistic, but I used to take singing lessons just to try to get develop my ear.  I was always the worst in ear training classes and I was super self-conscious about it, so it made it even worse.

FJO:  This might explain why there hasn’t been a ton of vocal music in your output.  There’s that really cool piece for loadbang based on haikus. That’s such an oddball ensemble.  And none of them play an instrument that’s necessarily tactile.  Right?  It’s brass and winds and then a singer.  That’s totally taking you out of your comfort zone.

“I love being out of my comfort zone, so my comfort zone is being out of it.”

AA:  Right, but I love being out of my comfort zone, so my comfort zone is being out of it. I also wrote a piece called NO one To kNOW one, in 2009-2010 and that was one of my only pieces with vocals.  And the piece I was telling you about that I wrote at Manhattan School that had a soprano.

FJO:  Right. And NO one To kNOW one is really interesting because at the end, she’s rapping.

AA:  Yeah, I never thought of it as rap, but I guess maybe I grew up on that a little bit. I was just thinking of a rhythmic way to say these words, but I wasn’t like I was going to try to mimic rap music and then people started calling that a rap.  I just wanted to mimic the rhythm that was going on, and when I wrote the lyrics, it just all fit together naturally.  I messed with the lyrics, and then came up with the rhythm and how that would be set, and then came up with the music, and it just kind of morphed.

I want to write for voice a lot more. I got more of a taste for that doing an opera this past summer.  Writing my first real aria was really great.  It really grounded me.  It was a nice roadmap and a relief to have some kind of structure to write with and to try to interpret words.  The opera is the first time I wrote with somebody else’s words. For loadbang, I wrote the words because I felt uncomfortable writing to somebody else’s words.  Same with NO one To kNOW one and the MSM piece.  Even though I don’t know how to work with words really, I felt more comfortable doing that. I’m not misinterpreting somebody else’s words for them to be upset with me.

FJO:  To take this back to the music videos of your music, it’s fascinating how detailed they are in the way they show how specific sounds are being made, whether it’s the close up of the dime in Vicki/y or the swipe of the credit card against the harp strings in Two Bridges.

“I enjoy seeing where these sounds come from.”

AA:  If I go to a show, I enjoy seeing where these sounds come from, learning and being inspired by that, and not to say: “Hey, this is how to do it.”  But just to share that experience, to get as close to a different experience from going to a live show, a different experience from listening to a record, and a different experience than watching a music video.  What was interesting about the videos you brought up, especially the harlem video is that I was thinking it’s gonna show the rubber bands, but he went in a completely different direction.

That was Michael McQuilken.  We’ve worked together a lot on a lot of videos, and I feel like we’re on the same wavelength on a lot of things.  I’ve always been very inspired working with him.  He’ll just take something and run with it.  It looked like I wrote the music to his film, but it was completely backwards. He sent me a treatment for every second.  I was living in Italy at the time. I remember reading this and I was just blown away.  What’s funny about that piece is it’s my most programmatic piece.  Usually it’s very abstract, and people try to ask me what it’s about, and I have no idea because they all think it sounds programmatic.  But with that piece, literally every sound has a story behind it.  I mean like: that was a siren; that was me running into a taxi; that was the door slamming; that was the emergency room beeps at the hospital.  I even sent him a treatment of what every sound meant when you listen to this CD.  And then he sent me one back, he’s like: “Man, I’ve been talking with my wife and we want to present this story.”  And she starred in the film, Adina. It was incredible what they did with that.

FJO:  It’s amazing. This is what music and film can be when there’s a real synchronicity.  And it’s interesting that the music existed first.  Because obviously most of the time in the film industry, the music gets written later. There are people who are masters at this.  The music fits the film so well and feels completely seamless, but to make the film fit pre-existing music is a whole different process.

AA:  I know.  He deserves so much credit for doing that.  He’s also a really amazing musician, just incredible artist all around.  We’ve taken other pieces like Prospects of a Misplaced Year, The World Below, where you’re super hyper into it, or NO one To kNOW one, where you’re seeing every single technique.  You’re seeing how the sounds are made on the exact opposite spectrum, even the Duo Scorpio piece, he directed that as well.

“The goal is to really feel like you’re in the instrument.”

The goal is to really feel like you’re in the instrument.  That’s something you can’t even get at a live show, unless you invite an audience on stage while you’re playing.  I’ve tried to do that before, too.  I got a little bit of that from being in Trinidad where you have like 50 people right up on you. Some are judging you, but most are really into it.  They’re two inches from you.  They’re almost in your instrument while you’re playing.  There’s just so much energy in that and I enjoy when you can get a little bit of that in a music video.

FJO:  So in a way, is that the ideal way to experience the music?  You have two CDs out.  Obviously, no one can see anything when they hear the CD.

AA:  No I just think it’s another experience. Most of the time if you’re listening to a record or CD, you’re just enjoying the sounds. I like having multiple ways to experience something, whether it’s a narrative or whether it’s just aurally, or a combination of both.

FJO:  Well to get to this idea of narrative, I didn’t know that every sound has a specific story behind it in to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem.  Music is so abstract. If you’re writing a film score or a score for a ballet, or you have words that someone’s singing or a narrator, you have this other element that gives you the story line.  Music on its own is not going to really do that, most of the time.  Or at least, you might have an idea of what the story is, but someone hearing it is going to come up with something totally different. Ironically that film about human trafficking, which was set to to wALk Or ruN in wEst harlem, is really the only time so far that you’ve worked with a bonafide story board in film, even though it was created after the piece was. So have you thought of ever doing a more typical kind of film scoring project?

AA:  I definitely want to do that, without a doubt.  I don’t think I necessarily want to be a full-time music movie composer, but I would love to do film.

FJO:  You were involved with a staged production which I only saw little snippets of, based on Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo. There are multiple narrative layers to this, Brecht’s play obviously but also the actual life of Galileo, the historical figure, as well as the specifics of that particular production. I imagine that those were all layers that theoretically determined, at least to some extent, what direction your music went in.

AA:  Definitely, and that felt a little bit like composing for film, too.  [The director] Yuval Sharon had a lot of specific ideas; it was his baby.  He really understood what each scene represented and he knew what he wanted for every part, which was a challenge for me, too, because I’m used to coming from a very abstract space, and I had to be disciplined and learn how to really work with somebody who kind of knew what they wanted.  It felt like writing for a movie, but it also inspired me to want to do those kind of collaborations more, because they’re bringing a whole other angle that I would never have thought of.  That piece was interesting because I found out about it while living in Rome, and was sitting in the exact spot where Galileo demonstrated the telescope to the Pope in 1611. I met Yuval on Skype who knows I was sitting in the spot in my studio.  And he was telling me about the project, and I was like: “Wow, this is crazy.”

FJO:  That’s like living on Monroe Street and finding Cage.  It’s trippy.

AA:  Yeah.  I don’t know, man.  Maybe we’re in The Matrix or something.  It’s like too many coincidences right now.  It’s just weird how the world works like that.  Especially in New York.  A friend, Freddie Harris, whom I used to play with down in Trinidad a lot—on the second day I moved to New York, in 2003, I run into him.  And he lived in Miami.  He didn’t even live here at that time.  I run into him.  I hadn’t seen him since Trinidad.  Kendall Williams, do you know him? He’s an excellent composer.  He’s at Princeton now, and he was at NYU.  I hadn’t seen him in probably eight years or something.  We played next to each other in Trinidad, for Phase II, in 2003.  And then I run into him at LPR and he was studying with Julia Wolfe.  Another steel pan composer starting to study with Julia.  Neither one of us grew up in that path to either do classical music or become a composer.  We both played pan next to each other in Trinidad.  There’s like a 160 players in that band and we happened to be the ones.

A traditional Japanese bamboo masu for drinking sake surrounded by small knicknacks depicting cats.

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New York City Heartbeats

Shortly after moving to New York City, I went to the Village Vanguard to hear Milford Graves, Wadada Leo Smith, John Zorn, and Bill Laswell play a set of improvised music. The stories I had heard about the electricity of Graves’s drumming, and my own experience hearing Smith’s hauntingly beautiful sound at the Banff workshop, fueled my anticipation. This was going to be the first time Milford Graves and Wadada Leo Smith would perform together, and I didn’t know what to expect. John Zorn and Bill Laswell were artists that I had only listened to on recordings during my previous life in Colorado. They were abstract names and sounds that I was finally going to encounter in flesh and blood. It was one of those “this is why I moved to New York” evenings.

Milford Graves’s drum set playing captured my imagination that night. Every limb seemed to be operating within its own pulse. He was singularly maintaining frequency layers between low toms, bass drum, and cymbals while sustaining momentum and interactive ideas across simultaneously varied tempos. The result was an ambient density, a current of sound that his fellow band members could wade, traverse, and ride. I connected this experience with my limited knowledge that Graves’s work draws from natural science as a source of musical inspiration. It struck me that I was listening to a highly intentional and designed improvisation that was related to the polyrhythmic operations of our own biology. In the same manner that cycles of heartbeats interact with the cadence of our breath and the pointillism of our eyelids, Milford’s sound was functioning as a single body comprised of independent motions.

Shortly after that performance I got a call from saxophonist/composer Peyton Pleninger. “Milford Graves is having a meeting at his house and he said I could bring you,” said Peyton. I was elated and curious. What would a conversation with an artist of Milford’s stature entail? After three subway transfers and a bus ride, I arrived at Graves’s street. My excitement began to mount. Milford Graves’s house is the home of a creator. His creative mind finds expression in everything he encounters, including his living space. After passing the front gate I was greeted by a lush vegetable garden and tall bamboo trees. Consistent with his drum set playing, the design appeared intentional yet improvised: a living sculpture of green leaves, thorny flowers, and stone walkways. Mrs. Graves, whose warm smile welcomed me and assured me that I, too, belonged here, greeted me at the door and pointed me downstairs. Down in the basement I found myself in a creative laboratory. Maps of human energy systems were hanging next to jars of preserved sheep’s brain. There were books ranging from African philosophy to electrocardiogram analysis and pathways of cords running from a twin computer station to technology that I had never seen before. Staggered throughout the room were hand drums of every shape and variety.

I introduced myself to the other people sitting in the basement. I quickly discovered that this was not just a meeting of musicians but of a wide swath of creative people. There were martial artists, a biologist, an author, and an array of instrumentalists. As Mr. Graves descended the staircase, he was greeted by the gathering with, “How are you, professor?” Graves once taught at Bennington College and, among us, he retained his title. I was glad for a way to address him that acknowledged the well of experience that he might share with us. “I am interested in bringing people together from various backgrounds so that we can learn about how our ideas connect,” he said after taking a seat.[1] Then he ignited a discussion on West African dance and its relationship to cardio processes. This was as much a musical hangout as it was an exploration of the fundamentals of creativity. As I attended more meetings, Professor Graves and the other attendees showed me how to mine seemingly incongruent disciplines for universal properties. Even now, the time I spend with Graves continues to unfold numerous realizations about creativity and life. Among them is the role of biology within universal music.

respiratory sinus arrhythmia

An ECG showing respiratory sinus arrhythmia. Photo by James Heilman

The Original Source

At the core of Graves’s work is the heartbeat: the heartbeat as a source of life, a source of creative activity, and a source of music. On the surface, the heart’s cyclic thumping provides a model for ostinato and groove. Yet if we dig deeper, we discover a world comprised of tremendous variability, arrhythmia, and adaptation. Malcolm Thaler describes the natural irregularity in heartbeat pulse that occurs while breathing when he writes:

Often, the EKG will reveal a rhythm that appears in all respects to be normal sinus rhythm except that it is slightly irregular. This is called sinus arrhythmia. This is a normal phenomenon, reflecting the variation in heart rate that accompanies inspiration and expiration. The effect may be so small as to be virtually undetectable or (rarely) large enough to mimic more serious causes of an irregular heartbeat. Inspiration accelerates the heart rate, and expiration slows it down.[2]

The study of arrhythmia can inform the way we think about musical time. Biology does not function precisely, instead operating as a series of “calls and responses” between interrelated systems. Within our bodies what matters is the relationship between actions rather than their mechanical precision. The heart creates sonic events within a threshold of time that is informed by the cadence of our breath and the tempo of our blood. If we adopt this concept in music, it allows us to explore a dimension of temporal “ebb and flow,” as well as prioritize “the sounds of the moment” over abstract rules. The shape of the rhythm[3] becomes more important than the numbers surrounding it. A musician’s sound in relation to the ensemble’s sound becomes more important than where the notes land on a metronome. I believe this allowance of natural arrhythmia in our performance practice is a step towards creating music that resonates with the unconscious polyrhythms of the listener’s body.

Milford Graves highlights the distinct nature of each cardio pulse through his sonifications. A few weeks after recording the sound of my heartbeat, Graves generated a video of my heart’s electrical information, called the EKG. It was a continuum of peaks and valleys that reminded me of seismographs recording earthquake movement. Then he hit play. The graph started moving and along with it was an angular melody: pitches were sounding in tandem with the progression of the graph. They were not tuned to any formal system, instead sounding anywhere within human aural range. As my heart’s electricity spiked, frequencies sounded higher and, as they retreated, the notes descended. The pitches cascaded, increasing and decreasing in density yet never settling into a specific pulse. With each heartbeat the electricity built up and fired. The recoil was another cardio pulse. I had never experienced the relationship between electricity and sound in such detail. It was as if, in every moment, there is lighting and thunder inside of us.

Milford Graves details the heartbeat as one source among a panoply of biological sources for musical inspiration. In his essay “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions,” he compares the twisting motion of the heart to the earth’s Chandler Wobble, describes the atomic process of the human ear, and outlines the importance of breath in energizing creative thought. Among these ideas Graves places heartbeat studies among four “correlative ways and methods for composing and performing biological music”:

  1. Music composition based on the stages of human embryo development
  2. Rhythmolgy based on Heart Rate Variability (HRV)
  3. Space-time parameters based on human Circulation Time (CT): CT is the time for the blood to pass through a given circuit of the vascular system, e.g., the pulmonary, cerebral, or system circulation, from one arm to another, from arm to tongue, or from arm to lung.
  4. Cardiogenetics relative to harmonic-melodic dissonance and clusterization.[4]

The human body offers a reservoir of largely unexplored creative material. Music that imitates, sonifies, and draws inspiration from such a fundamental aspect of life has the potential to be both visceral and imaginative. Yet Graves’s explorations delve deeper still. His interest seems to lie more in the spiritual, mystical, and healing properties of biological vibration itself rather than compositions that use the repetitive “thump-thump” of a beating heart. Graves outlines this idea in his “Statement of Clarification” when he writes:

The primary purpose of this essay is to focus on an integrative process of how to interweave the hidden wisdom of imaginative thinking (mysticism, magic, alchemy, and the spiritual of music) with scientific methodology. This revelationary endeavor requires a certain degree of Polymathic qualities to properly understand how seemingly disparate ways of thinking are all integral members of the grand unified energy concept of cosmogenic transmutations.[5]

In the footnotes Graves defines revelationary as “a person who adopts change in his thinking and actions as a result of something unknown being revealed” and polymathic as “someone who is very knowledgeable. A secondary meaning of polymath is Renaissance Man.” Graves’s coupling of the spiritual and scientific worlds opens the floodgates of meta-creativity. The idea of unique disciplines and their identities are washed away. What is left in the wake are the pillars and foundations of biology, vibration, and creative process—building blocks that can be used to reshape thought, art, and endeavor towards a limitless horizon. Graves’s emphasis on biology is derived in part from the understanding that bodies are a fundamental aspect of every creative endeavor. From this standpoint, anyone participating in or organizing a project is making biological choices with regards to the work.

The members of a performance ensemble are the biological component of a piece of music.

The members of a performance ensemble are the biological component of a piece of music. Changing members of a band or orchestra while maintaining the same repertoire can have a dramatic effect on a composition’s sound. There is nothing new about this idea. A staple of music education is studying interpretations of the same piece by a variety of artists. An almost universal practice is composing music for specific people and creating ensembles of specific people. These decisions are so integral to music making that we take it for granted that we are essentially composing the biology that will integrate with a work.

When we design music with an understanding of biology, we further remove ourselves from static practices and embrace another fundamental aspect of creativity. In addition to precision and consistency we must also recognize the importance of adaptation, arrhythmia, and temporal thresholds within art. The critical nature of biology in music reveals another possibility: music making itself may function as an unconscious form of biological sonification. When we create layers of rhythm and pitch within a composition, are we unintentionally imitating the frequencies and relationships within our bodies? Is our perception of rhythm simply an extension of human bodies acting in tandem?[6] In many ways, the relationship between music and biology is an argument against French philosopher René Descartes’s separation of mind and body. Descartes famously argued that thinking alone is enough to prove existence.[7] This devaluation of the body is so embedded in the consciousness of Western culture that we regularly prioritize the cerebral qualities of the composer over the physical actions of the musician. Descartes’s abstraction bolsters the idea that music can exist objectively outside of biology and sound. In reality, our bodies participate in every step of music making—including the creative process itself.

Milford Graves playing Tabla with Shahzad Ismaily

Milford Graves playing Tabla with Shahzad Ismaily at Graves’s 75th birthday celebration

Connecting Every Dot

During my first year of living in New York City, I had the privilege of spending more time with Milford Graves. In addition to his Sunday gatherings and my heartbeat recording, I was fortunate enough to take a lesson from him and attend his 75th birthday celebration. His unbridled curiosity and diverse interests, combined with hard work and exploration, make him an example of meta-creativity. Professor Graves finds connections between seemingly divergent activities. In the basement of his house, he once demonstrated the digital and analog forms of sound within martial arts movements, explained the importance of cooking and flavor within storytelling, and related the opening and closing of the heart to the arm motions within a West African dance. I began to realize that the lines between creativity and learning are blurred and may be non-existent. The shared method of experimentation, feedback, and adaptation seemed to unite the two processes. Danah Zohar describes this liberated exploration as a quantum operation in her essay “Creativity and the Quantum Self.”

I believe that in the testing nature of our imaginations we are behaving exactly like quantum systems throwing out their feelers toward the future. Our capacity for creativity, I think, is linked to similar processes in the brain, and to their quantum underpinnings. The fact that we can form new concepts, new ideas, new artistic creations, new linguistic structures is all I believe founded on the essential creativity of quantum systems. It is founded on their ability to “image” different futures and on their ability to form new emergent wholes as a result of their explorations.[8]

The quantum system is a method of experiential learning. “Throwing out feelers toward the future” engages the process of experimentation, exploration, failure, and adaptation that fuels the imagination. Creativity seems to erupt from the mind’s ability to connect these inputs, establishing new mental indexes. The practice of connecting ideas becomes a learning process and an experience in and of itself, further eroding any divide between education and creativity. Albert Rothenberg, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, describes a similar process of connecting imagined ideas, shapes, and experiences as homospatial thinking when he writes:

The homospatial process responsible for many types of creative results involves mental representations that defy or go beyond actual physical space. This process consists of actively conceiving two or more discrete entities occupying the same space or spatial location, a conception leading to the articulation of new integrations.  In conscious mental space, creators may superimpose or interpose shapes, patterns, written words, dimensions, distances, and other concrete entities.[9]

Milford Graves’s work advances both quantum and homospatial processes through his ability to pinpoint and connect the fundamental aspects of distinct activities. Graves outlines the confluence between creative thinking, imagination, biology, and temporal events in his essay “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions.”

All biological receptors must be fully open to receive, transport, and transmute cosmic vital energies to everything that is required to initiate the imaginary process for greater creative development. Equipolarization between creative imagination and conventional thought is the transmorphic matrix for solving problematic negative energies.[10]

In the footnotes Graves defines the transmorphic matrix as an “exchanging of scalar, real and complex events.” In this statement, biology acts as an energy conduit for creative thinking that includes both homospatial and quantum methods. This “imaginary process” forms an equal relationship to “conventional thought” through complex action in the real world. Graves’s connections between energy, creative thought, and action create a feedback loop that affects the person and larger cosmos. Yet at the core of this odyssey is human biology’s ability to “transmute cosmic vital energies,” bringing into question whether art is actually a biological transfer rather than a physical creation.

Art is not the sound of an instrument, paint on canvas, or movement on stage. Rather, art is the way our perception of an experience contributes to our learning process.

The creative process of “connecting every dot” allows for a definition of art that reaches beyond physical materials and vibrating air molecules. By this definition, art is not the sound of an instrument, paint on canvas, or movement on stage. Rather, art is the way our perception of an experience contributes to our learning process. In his book A Million Years of Music, Gary Tomlinson defines culture as “activities [and] behaviors learned in a lifetime and passed on to the next generation.”[11] Tomlinson’s definition employs audiences and artists as learners and teachers within the creative process. Culture emerges when biological forces interact and contribute to each other, allowing the artistic experience to become a medium for transformation. The physical creation that is taking place is not the sound or sculpture but the change in biology that occurs when our brain maps the sound into pitch or the light into shape.[12] Art is an input that contributes to our life’s feedback loop through its effect on our neurons and our relationship with the natural polyrhythms of our bodies.

cultural experience

This touches upon a larger point about creativity. If learning is the art experience, then the divide between education and performance that is prevalent in American society evaporates. When these hierarchies are gone, we realize that any input has the potential to be art though its effect on, and relationship to, our biology. The classroom transforms into a performance venue and the stage becomes a lecture hall. The experience of enjoyment, mental expansion, and flow state that we often associate with art may simply be indicators that we are engaged with a positive method of learning. Every learning experience harbors the potential to be an artistic one if we are willing to listen.

From the sympathetic vibrations of neurons to the bodies that inhabit an ensemble, biology is at the core of creative work. Our bodies seem to absorb experiences, react to the input, and sonify organic shapes through music. This art making becomes a platform for the transmission of ideas and behaviors from which culture blossoms. If our bodies play a role in every sound we make, how could the study of biology inform future creations? How do these ideas connect to our list of universals that encompass environment, noise, choice, communities, and genre elimination? During one of Milford Graves’s collective sessions, I briefly explained my inquiry into universal music and asked how it related to the gathering’s discussion of biology as a fundamental aspect of creativity. Instrumentalist and biochemist Shahzad Ismaily gave me a profoundly simple response: “Fundamentals are the universal. They are the same.”


1. This is how I remember Graves’s starting the discussion on that day.

2. Thaler, Malcom S. The Only EKG Book You’ll Ever Need. 8th edition. Wolters Kluwer, 2015. pp. 110

3. The idea of thinking of rhythms as shapes was introduced to me by guitarist/composer Miles Okazaki.

4. Graves, Milford. “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions.” Arcana V: music, magic and mysticism. Edited by John Zorn. Hips Road, 2010. pp.184-185

5. Graves, Milford. “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions.” pp. 174

6. Tomlinson, Gary. A Million Years of Music. Zone Books, 2015. pp. 289-290

7. Descartes, René. Discourse on Method and Related Writings. Translated by Desmond M. Clarke. Penguin Books, 2003. Pp 69-71

8. Zohar, Danah. “Creativity and the Quantum Self” Creativity, edited by John Brockman. Simon & Schuster 1993. pp. 210

9. Rothenburg, Albert. “The Homospatial Process in Creativity. Psychologytoday.com posted July, 2nd 2015. Paragraph 3. Date accessed: September, 23 2016. www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creative-explorations/201507/the-homospatial-process-in-creativity

10. Graves, Milford. “Music Extensions of Infinite Dimensions.” pp. 177

11. Tomlinson, Gary. A Million Years of Music. pp. 46

12. Levitin, Daniel J. This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession. Plume, 2007. pp. 87-93


Teresa Louis, Matt Moore, Jayanthi Bunyan, and Meera Dugal for reading and reviewing these essays. Molly Sheridan, Frank Oteri, and NewMusicBox for giving me this opportunity and your ongoing support of the new music community. Milford Graves for supporting my creative development with his ideas, sound, and time. Brooklyn Public Libraries for providing a quiet and air conditioned space in which I could work.

Yarn/Wire: From The Ground Level

Once upon a time, most performances of new music came about in one of three ways. A performance could happen through the efforts of the few dedicated new music practitioners (many of whom were based at academic institutions). Another way would be by trying to convince more established groups to play a new piece (in addition to the Beethoven and Tchaikovsky pieces those ensembles might rather be playing) and sometimes that worked. Or, if a composer had the requisite performance skills and had some talented friends, she or he could form their own ensemble and hope for the best. But one of the defining phenomena of American music in the 21st century has been the staggering number of dedicated DIY new music interpreters who have established ensembles based all over the country.

Because of the existence of so many self-starting groups of myriad instrumentations, gone are the days when it was safest to write a piece for string quartet or piano trio (though it is easy to find DIY groups with those particular instrumental configurations as well). And because many of these unique groupings lack a pre-existing repertoire, their modus operandi is to commission new work.

One of the most exciting as well as one of the most articulate of these groups is the two piano/two percussion quartet Yarn/Wire, whose studio sits at the edge of Bushwick on the border between Brooklyn and Queens. Admittedly, the combined forces of two pianists and two percussionists is not a completely new idea. Next year marks the 80th anniversary of Béla Bartók’s seminal Sonata for Two Pianos and Percussion, a work that received its premiere the following year at the 1938 ISCM World Music Days in Basel, Switzerland. There were also important pieces written for that combination in the 1970s by Luciano Berio and George Crumb and then, in the 1990s, IRCAM commissioned a bunch of pieces informed by spectralist ideas, many of which also included elaborate electronic set-ups.

In fact, Yarn/Wire began their existence ten years ago playing such repertoire. But they soon discovered that what excited them the most was being able to work with composers from the ground level up to shape pieces that are best suited to their collective musical temperament. They started out working with composers they had befriended during their college days at Stony Brook—people like Eric Wubbels, Aaron Einbond, Mei-Fang Lin, Alex Mincek, and Sam Pluta. Mincek and Pluta have now each composed two major works for the ensemble. But, as their reputation spread, they also began working with major international figures such as Enno Poppe, Tristan Murail, and Misato Mochizuki. Their world premiere performances of the works written for them by Murail and Mochizuki were presented by the Lincoln Center Festival last year.

A few months ago they debuted what is probably the most unusual work created for them thus far: Material by Michael Gordon, an hour-long work in which the four of them surround a single open grand piano and almost ritualistically proceed to eke out a seemingly infinite variety of sounds. Gordon spent hours with the group testing all sorts of combinations of what was possible (both in terms of sound production and in terms of physical endurance), and the resulting still score-less composition—while undeniably music—could also easily be described as theater, choreography, and performance art.

Being the enablers for bringing to life such pieces makes Yarn/Wire an extremely important catalyst for music that is happening right now. Yet, at the same time, the group is devoted to performing whatever they play at the highest possible level, which means intensive rehearsing as well as constant interconnectivity between the four of them. Earlier this year, their interpretive prowess led them to be runners up for the University of Michigan’s highly coveted M-Prize, a brand new $100K cash prize for chamber ensembles that attracted 172 applicants from 13 countries. The award ultimately was given to a string quartet that is devoted to performing older canonical classics that have stood the test of time and the members of Yarn/Wire realize that the jury is still out on whether any of the works they are performing will wind up in the canon. For them the question is irrelevant. That said, they are committed to building a repertoire that they will continue to play and that will hopefully be embraced by adventurous ensembles in future generations.

Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio in conversation with Frank J. Oteri
at Yarn/Wire’s Bushwick Studio in Brooklyn, New York
June 30, 2016—12:00 p.m.
Video presentations and photography by Molly Sheridan
Transcribed by Julia Lu

Frank J. Oteri:  So where did this crazy idea come from to form a group consisting of two pianists and two percussionists?  What were you all doing before it?  Did you ever think you’d be in a group like this for ten years?

Russell Greenberg:  I don’t think any of us thought we would do this.  I know I wanted to play new music, but I didn’t know what form that would take.  Laura and I met at Stony Brook University. Then Ian came in and we played some Steve Reich together.  I think it was Sextet. The group really just formed out of us enjoying each other’s company and enjoying playing together.  It wasn’t so much of a mandate to have this two-piano, two-percussion group.  It just kind of happened. At least that’s my recollection.

Laura Barger:  We wanted to give a performance, and it was part of our doctoral recital requirements. But mostly it was about repertoire we just really wanted to play, pieces we were excited about.  That’s how things got started.  There was not much of a long-term goal beyond that at first.

RG:  Then it changed after that first recital. We started asking composer friends that we knew to write pieces—Mei-Fang Lin, Alex Mincek, Eric Wubbels, Aaron Einbond, a lot of old friends from before we had all met at Stony Brook, and new friends as well.  They started adding to the rep, and then we started playing more and more.  It kind of grew from that.

FJO:  Now Ning, you were not part of the group from the very beginning.

Ning Yu:  No, I joined in 2011; however, I knew everyone from my Stony Brook days, so I knew the start of this group and I’d heard a lot about the group before I joined.  Laura and I actually studied with the same piano professor, so we would see each other a lot.

FJO:  Now, in terms of what you were all doing musically before this.  Russell said that he always wanted to play new music.  I’d love to hear from the rest of you about that.  What you were doing musically before starting this?

Ian Antonio:  I went to Manhattan School of Music for undergrad. My memory is not super clear, but I definitely wanted to be in an orchestra. From the time I was in high school, I loved orchestral music.  I still love orchestral music.  But I found myself drawn towards the collaborative aspect of working on new pieces with living composers and have gotten more and more into it, so I eventually replaced the burning desire to be in an orchestra with the desire to play new things.

FJO:  Certainly, for the pianists in the group, there were many more options besides playing new music. There’s definitely lots of music that doesn’t involve two percussionists.

LB:  I was probably like a lot of music students, especially pianists.  I knew I wanted to be a musician, but I had only a sort of vague idea of what that entailed.  I knew it meant playing music and eventually teaching, but I didn’t really have a clear idea until maybe 2003 or 2004, when I went to Banff.  I did a long residency there and really had time to come terms with the fact that the thing that I was not only the best at, but what I most enjoyed and was most interested in, was playing new music.  So that’s what I wanted to do.

NY:  Before Stony Brook I went to the Eastman School of Music for my undergraduate and masters.  During my time there, there were a lot of groups coming out of Eastman—Alarm Will Sound, JACK Quartet, to name just a couple. There were a lot of great musicians and this really vibrant atmosphere, so I knew from my last year of undergrad that I wanted to devote most of my time to playing new music with all of my classmates.  When I got to Stony Brook, I started realizing this was not just a selective group of students at the school who were into new music.  There were a lot more actually playing at a really high level.

A Yarn/Wire concert poster is attached to a wall across from shelves containing loads of instruments, such as, on one row, a bunch of bells.

FJO:  You formed initially to do a concert, but you weren’t really thinking beyond that. There was just some repertoire you wanted to play.  But there really isn’t a whole lot of repertoire for two pianists and two percussionists.  There are pieces by Bartók and Crumb plus I know a Cage piece that can kind of work for just the four people.

RG:  When we started, there was the Bartók, and works by Berio and Crumb, then there’s like a 20- or 30-year gap, and then there are all these European pieces that were co-commissioned by IRCAM for the Ensemble Intercontemporain and other groups like that.  So there’s a Lindberg piece from the ‘90s and Philippe Leroux has a piece—there’s all this heady electronic modernist kind of stuff—

LB:  —And post-spectral or spectral-influenced music.—

RG:  –So we started playing that stuff.  But I don’t think we’d ever do that concert again.

LB:  Our first concert was the hardest concert we’ve ever played.

RG:  It all had electronics written for IRCAM, so we had to go into MAX and figure it out for ourselves.

IA:  I remember someone who played the [Michael] Jarrell piece in Europe saying that IRCAM literally showed up with an 18-wheel tractor-trailer for all of the electronics gear.  We tried to do it ourselves with a mini-van.  It was so insane, hours and hours of wrapping cables without support staff.  Then the logistics of the percussion—at that time, we didn’t have all this gear [gestures around studio]; we really just had what we had at Stony Brook, and a couple of mallet instruments.

RG:  When you see what was being done in the ‘90s and early 2000s with gear and electronics, that’s all we had to build off of.  So we tried to conquer as much of that as we could.  But it’s a much different mindset than the kind of generative stuff that we do now which, in an ideal world, is asking a composer to have a very small set up and something that’s portable and tourable—something that we can do.

IA:  Or flexible.

RG: Yeah, at least. But it has changed.  In our early days, we were getting pieces that had already been played and we were trying to do our version.  After that initial bump, we started essentially generating material for ourselves.  We’re not co-composers with a lot of the composers that we’ve worked with, but we do collaborate on creating work now.  And that’s been really exciting.

FJO:  So how do you find composers that you want to work with?  Are they recommended?  Do you hear stuff?  How do you put your feelers out?  What’s your process for discovering something new?

NY:  I think just about everything you have mentioned, and more.  I get emails from various people that say, “Have you checked out this person yet?”  And also friends and past colleagues whom we’ve worked with from way before, we’re now thinking, “Can we actually commission this person for a new piece, not for a piece that was written for someone else?”

IA:  It’s largely people we know.

LB:   The new music community is tight-knit, maybe even more so by necessity in some places.  But in New York, there’s so much happening.  Just being aware of what’s going on here, of what’s going on around the United States, and trying to be an active member of the community is a good way to know what’s happening.

Being aware of what’s going on here, of what’s going on around the United States, and trying to be an active member of the community is a good way to know what’s happening.

RG:  I agree with what you guys are saying.  If you look at our first CD, every person on it was someone we knew and had known for years.  So you start with what you know.  Then after that, we got to expand the circle a little bit.  People would suggest things, like Ning said.  For myself, going to festivals internationally was another big way.  Like what Laura said, keeping an eye on the community here, but also paying attention to what’s happening abroad and what seems interesting.  That’s how I encountered Enno Poppe’s music for the first time.  I heard—I think it was—Ensemble Modern play it, and I was like, “This is it! We’ve got to work with this guy.”  It took many years, but then we got to work with Enno.

NY:  The next layer on top of that was getting to play a new work by someone like Tristan Murail, for example. He is not our friend on a personal level. But we also get together and say, “Who are our aspirational dream composers?”

RG:  Like Beethoven.  If he was alive, we would have asked him.

LB:  Totally!

FJO:  I imagine that for a lot of composers you’d be a dream ensemble.  So let’s say that somebody wants to write for you as opposed to you wanting them to write for you.  How does that work?  If somebody contacts you and says, “Oh, I have a great idea for a piece” or “I wrote this piece,” do you deal with envelopes coming in the mail with scores? Does anything ever pass go through that process?

IA:  I don’t think that’s ever happened.  We definitely get envelopes in the mail, but I don’t know if we’ve ever played one, only because we typically like to be involved with newer pieces on the ground level, from the conceptual process to the logistical process, then I think we all like to have a back and forth with composers: This is where we would play it.  This is maybe how long the piece could be. Then they would have this idea.  The back and forth aspect is one of the main things that we enjoy.

RG: All of us have a lot of agency and a lot of desires, and none of us wants to play something we don’t like.  So the matter of taste starts coming up.  I don’t even know how to begin to answer that question.

LB:  And it’s hard for pieces that are already written.  We can’t really do that.

We typically like to be involved with newer pieces on the ground level.

RG:  We can’t just play every piece that comes to us.  We don’t have a venue.  There are so many things that go into putting on a concert and presenting a piece.  So when you get someone saying, “Hey, I got something for you,” we’re really stoked about the idea, but there are only so many notes we can learn at a given time.  When we were students, time was unlimited almost.  But now, as we’re going further and further down this project, we have less of that time so it becomes a little bit harder.

IA:  Logistically also, we’ll get pieces in the mail. I think we always check out and listen to everything.  But I know this happened with me and Russell, we’ll be looking at a piece and it’s got four timpani and chimes. We actually don’t have timpani or chimes, so we just can’t do it.  It excludes it before it begins.

FJO:  It’s interesting that you don’t have timpani.

IA:  I think we have two not-good timpani for special effects like cymbal on timpani or crotale on timpani.

shelves of drums containing a timpano (upside down), three side drums, a pair of congas, and various drum stands.

A lone timpano, upside down, is among the many drums on shelves in the Yarn/Wire studio.

FJO:  That opens up another whole area of questions about what instruments you have and why you have them. Some of what you’ve amassed here, I imagine, came from specific requests from the composers who have worked with you.  I remember coming in here last summer and there being a bunch of bottles with rods in them which you needed, I think, for a piece you were rehearsing that Raphaël Cendo wrote for you. You probably didn’t have those beforehand.

IA:  Wine bottles are not hard for us to get.

NY:  We do acquire a lot of new things.

LB:  Small things.

NY:  Like, what was that, also in Cendo’s piece?

LB:  Oh, the flasks! We had to buy the kind of flask you tuck into your vest at a football game, if you’re wearing a vest. So we acquire a lot of smaller toys and tools.

FJO:  So it’s okay to acquire those, but not four timpani and chimes.

RG:  I would like to, if I could.

IA:  It’s a money thing.

RG:  We have that huge steel sheet also from the Cendo.  We had to go to the steel sheet place and get that cut.  But a set of chimes is a couple grand.

IA:  Seven thousand dollars.

RG:  Set of timpani, same.  So, context is everything.  If we get a grant to do it, yeah.  We’ll get some chimes.  I’d love to get some chimes.

Metal shelves filled with various small instruments as well as various small bells and gongs on a table.

Some of the small instruments warehoused in Yarn/Wire’s studio.

FJO:  But then another thing is how feasible is it to take the instruments on the road. You’ve all said you want things to be practical and you guys tour all the time.  But before we get into that, I’m curious—just in terms of the time factor, because you’ve said there isn’t a lot of time—how much time do you guys actually spend together?  What’s a typical week?

LB:  It definitely depends on how busy we are and how many concerts and projects we have going.  But I would say, at least for the past couple years, we see each other at least three times a week, most weeks.  And we’re in almost constant contact through email, text, and telephone.  So I would say we spend a lot of time together.

NY:  I cannot recall a work day—that’s basically saying Monday through Friday—that we did not communicate with each other.  Whether it’s through email, phone calls, or actually being in here. And that also sometimes includes weekends.  And in a tour situation, we are of course very compact throughout the time we’re on tour.  So we spend a fair amount of time with each other.

FJO:  And the amount of time spent here in this studio?

RG:  We probably do about 12 to 15 hours a week, four-hour blocks.  Some weeks more, some weeks less.

FJO:  If a string quartet wants to tour around the country, that means five airline tickets, one for each of the four players and one for the cello. But with the four of you, I imagine getting on an airplane might be a little trickier.  Obviously, you don’t need to bring your own pianos, but everything else gets packed up.  Right?

IA:  No, we don’t bring a ton. When we have very specific instruments we need, Russell and I will bring stuff.  But it’s limited to two checked bags.  We can check big bags if we need to, but a lot of the places we play will either rent the larger percussion instruments, or it might be at a university where they can wrangle the more generic-type instruments—marimba, vibraphone, those kinds of things.

NY:  Before we go to any venue, the contractual details are a little bit more extended than with a string quartet. We have to make sure that they’re able to host us and that they have all the things that we need.  Sometimes our programming is affected by what we can do in a particular location.

A lone cymbal is suspended on a stand amidst many other instruments including a marimba

FJO:  So, the practical factors that go into choosing a composer you want to work with on a piece: What is possible?  What isn’t possible?  I’m curious about that process.  How long does it take?  How involved are you with the composers while they’re writing their piece?  How often do pieces change from the moment you get handed the score before the first rehearsal to the actual performance?  What have been the extremes?

If you look at our past performances list and see how many times a given piece is programmed, usually it has to do with how logistically possible it is to do a piece.

RG:  Every extreme, you know, because you can say as much as you want but in the end the composer’s going give you the piece that they are going to give you.  In many cases we’ll say, “We would love to play this more than the premiere.” We’re always dedicated to the premiere, and we also want to play it after that.  But if they don’t follow certain things that we say—like, for instance, if you write for three waterphones, we’re never going to get to play that piece anywhere except for this time—it’s going to be very rare.  But if the composer really wants that, it’s going to happen.  We’re going to play the premiere.  They just need to know that it probably won’t get to happen again.  It’s really important that a piece becomes a part of the rep.  And if they’ll take those things into consideration, then we get to play them many times. If you look at our past performances list and see how many times a given piece is programmed, usually it has to do with how logistically possible it is to do a piece.

IA:  And we like to play pieces we like.

RG:  Yeah, that’s a given.

IA:  It’s the meeting of our desire to play a piece again and the logistical possibility of doing it.

NY:  Depending on the composer, the process is also very different.  Because everybody commands different processes. It seems like some people write incredibly fast and some people write incredibly slow.  Certain people really literally write and tell us, “I have a couple of pages.” Then a month later, “Never mind.  Completely new idea.” Then sometimes we don’t get a piece they’re talking about for like three years.  It all varies quite a bit.  But we are enjoying these different aspects of different composers, and their different personalities, as well.  So even ones that we’ve had to wait for three years for, once we have that final piece, it’s also very exciting.  And we’ll try to find every possible venue to perform it.

FJO:  You said final piece; I’m curious about things changing during the process.

Some composers will come in and we will in some ways create the piece together with them.

LB:  Yes.  I think a lot of composers—again just like they have different speeds of writing—have different levels of interest in our involvement and how they write the piece.  Some composers will come in and we will in some ways create the piece together with them.  We have done that before. They have an idea or a form they want to see or hear, and we work together to create that with them through trial and error, or just through playing.  We have composers who’ve come in and made recordings of us trying all sorts of different techniques on percussion and piano, and then they use that to sit down and write in isolation.  Or we all have sketches that we’ll play and some of them will become the piece and some of them don’t. But, for example, I guess we can bring up Murail again, who has a very defined voice and style.  He just wrote the piece, and we got it, and we played it, and that was that.

IA:  Fully engraved.

NY:  Beautiful, and ready to go.

FJO:  And you never met him.

LB:  Well, not at that stage.

RG:  But also then there are other pieces where you get the finished score, and the composer comes in and you’re like, “This doesn’t quite work” and they’re like “Alright, cool, I’ll change it.”  So then the final piece, as you’re calling it, is actually different than what we were sent.

LB:  Or there’s a notation of some technique that has never really been done before, so it’s not perfectly right.  So you and the composer have to find what that sound is.  What do you want?  How does this work?  And that might influence a later edition of that piece as well.

RG:  We even have pieces where we don’t have an official score. That has happened with a very recent one, and we can still play it.  Then we’ll see how the final score ended up—great—and it is the piece, but we actually just have this other thing that we worked on with the composer.

IA:  Reich’s Drumming didn’t have a score for many years.  It was just kind of an oral tradition.

FJO:  I remember that Misato Mochizuki purposefully didn’t give you the last page of her piece until the day before you were premiering it.  Part of her reason for doing that was about ensuring that there was an element of surprise for everybody, including the four of you.  But that’s obviously something you can only pull off at a premiere.  Once it becomes part of your repertoire, the surprise factor is gone unless there are indeterminate elements.  So how do you keep the surprise and the inquisitiveness going once something goes from being brand new to being repertoire?

RG:  We’ve continued to rehearse that piece, and we’ve played it a number of times.

IA:  The end of that piece that you’re talking about is a structure that she came up with in which the content is always filled a little bit differently.  We’re playing it again and she will be here, so I’m curious to see if it’s finished—or not finished, but now fully notated.  I don’t know what that will be like.

LB:  I would also add the performance aspect: any time you do something for the audience it’s new, and so you draw energy and inspiration from that.

Any time you do something for the audience it’s new, and so you draw energy and inspiration from that.

RG:  When we have been rehearsing that piece—we’ve played it like two or three times now since the premiere—every time when we come to it, what we rehearse is actually the pacing, the drama of that thing.  That’s actually a lot of work, because you have to step outside yourself and watch what’s happening with it.  That piece opened up a lot of questions about performance.

FJO:  Getting back to choices of composers.  You’ve now worked with a few very established composers: Tristan Murail, Michael Gordon, and Enno Poppe—you didn’t premiere his piece but you got to work with him on it.  You’ve also done a lot with younger composers and you talked about paying attention to the whole world, the whole U.S.A., and New York City, and you definitely maintain a balance of local and international composers. Additionally, I’m curious, your group is an even 50-50 split: it’s two men and two women.  You’ve worked with several female composers, but our field doesn’t exactly have the kind of gender parity that we might want for composers. So how do these issues factor into your choices of who to work with—gender, generation, geography?

LB:  I think we’re aware of all those things.  We don’t want to be tokenistic, but we also absolutely want to make sure that we are representing the number of really amazing women who are writing music.  So we are aware of that, and I think at the same time we want to work with people that we have access to.  It sounds a little pat to say, but I do think the most important thing, or the thing we want to hold onto, is we want to find good music and interesting music, and that really comes from so many different places.

IA:  Actually, the geography question is maybe the first one that comes up when we’re working on a new piece.  Who do we have access to? Who will we have the chance to be collaborative with?  That’s been maybe the primary driver.

RG:  There’s no prerequisite to who can write good music, so we’re just trying to find what fits that paradigm.  And again, we can’t really answer that.

A bunch of mallets next to a page from a score.

FJO:  One of my favorite pieces that you’ve done is a four-movement work by Andrew Nathaniel McIntosh, who is based in California.  I find his music utterly fascinating, but I first became aware of him in a somewhat random way. He’s not yet on a lot of people’s radar outside of the L.A. new music scene. A piece of his was chosen to be performed on the Gaudeamus Festival a few years back which is how I first learned about him.  Then a few years later, I noticed that you were performing a piece of his which at first I found somewhat baffling since I associate his music mostly with strings. He’s a string player himself and he creates very idiosyncratic microtonal music. It’s not the kind of thing that seems easily adaptable to your instrumentation since, I imagine, you tend to keep your pianos in 12-tone equal temperament.

RG:  I have this friend Corey Fogel; he’s a performance artist and a really great drummer.  He lives in L.A.  I also happen to be from L.A., so I see him every year around his birthday. We were talking about music and he sent a list of people to check out, and I checked out Andrew McIntosh. Andrew’s part of this publishing thing called Plainsound, so you can go on PlainSound.org and he’s listed.  Thomas Meadowcroft is there and Chiyoko [Szlavnics] is there. Quite a number of very experimental composers who are kind of on the—I hesitate to say it—outside; they’re outsider composers.  So the next time I came to L.A. I looked up Andrew and we just started talking.  That’s how that came about.  It was a personal connection.

FJO:  And the piece is microtonal, but not in the kind of systemic ways that a lot of his other stuff is.  So how did that work out?

IA:  He designed a set of pipes for us that are tuned in a very specific way. So that’s a microtonal aspect.

NY:  And also we play wine glasses and bowls filled with water.

LB:  Pitches change as you slowly add or take away water.

NY:  And even though we’re playing the same piano, somehow with the pedal and through the different partials of the harmonics, us playing a seventh or ninth, it creates an illusion of a certain kind of microtonality.  At least that’s how it sounded to me.

FJO:  We talked about working with a composer more than once.  Sam Pluta has written two really interesting and very different pieces for you.  This is a luxury.  We referenced string quartets before; composers tend to write a whole bunch of string quartets, but other ensembles rarely inspire such output. When we did a talk with the Imani Winds for NewMusicBox, they all opined about how most composers will probably write just one wind quintet so they rarely have the same level of familiarity, which comes from experience, of a composer who is in complete control of the ensemble’s resources.  You basically only get their first attempt.  I imagine the same is true for two pianos and percussion.  There certainly isn’t a tradition of writing for this ensemble.

One of the grand pianos in Yarn/Wire's studio.

NY:  I feel that this formation is not easy at all to write for; I can imagine the pain of writing for not just one piano, but two pianos. But the second time around, or the third or fourth time, there is a craft that’s being practiced, so I personally would be really interested in the number threes and number fours.  For example, like Alex Mincek’s new piece for us.  He totally delved into a different type of sound, and we’re just loving playing it.

RG:  That’s his second piece for us.

IA:  I think it is something that we’ve been purposefully doing.  It is actually the exact same thing you mentioned with Imani Winds—the idea of taking the model of writing multiple string quartets and getting multiple pieces.  I know we asked George Crumb a number of years ago if he would consider writing a second piece for our configuration.  He said he wasn’t really in the mood to do it, but he thought it was a great idea.

RG:  A good idea.

IA:  Yeah.  Maybe in a couple years he will want to do it.  He knows our desire is there.

RG:  It would be cool to see, like we have with Alex and Sam, another side of people.  How they develop too, because what’s the space between the two Mincek and Pluta pieces?  Like four or five years.

IA:  Six years.

RG:  That’s a lot of time to develop not only as a composer, but as a person.  Your interests change.

LB:  We’ve changed, too.

RG:  We can play differently, and it’s cool to work with people you know very well as you get older.  And then a new generation can do a whole concert of Pluta or a whole concert of Mincek!

IA:  Yeah.

NY:  The complete Mincek piano/percussion quartets.

FJO:  Then there’s the other extreme, which transcends considerations of whether something is a first piece or a fourth piece—something like what Michael Gordon wrote for you, which totally redefines what this ensemble could be and what you all can do as musicians. You all were all doing things I imagine you’ve never done before.  I’m curious about what the experience of working with him was like and how that piece evolved.

LB:  Well, for a long time Michael definitely was one of those aspirational composers with whom it would be really great to work someday.  He’s so busy, so it was not going to be easy.  But I think once we found the right way and the time, it was a really great process.

IA:  It was really collaborative. It was the most a composer has come to work with us just on pure sound ideas, because it was so specifically exploring what one grand piano can do.  And he probably has six hours of us on video.

RG: Most of that should just get tossed.

NY: There’s a lot of “what if you did that?” 

LB: And “how long could you do that one thing?”

NY:  Then we said, “Have you thought of that turned into this?  We could start at point A, and then go to point B.”  He’s like, “Oh, let me think about that.  And I’ll see you in two weeks.”  Then he comes back, “You know that point B was really interesting.  Can you do a reverse from point B, back to point A?”  So we didn’t know how this piece was going to pull together until pretty late.

IA:  It was really fluid.

RG:  Figuring out the connections.  This is one that we don’t use a score for.  We just have the material we created with him, pardon the pun—this is what the piece is called [Material]. But even the last day, we were changing things. We changed and eliminated.  It was awesome.

IA:  I think there are going to be maybe more tweaks.

RG:  Yup.

LB: And maybe more material. 

IA: Yeah, there could be. 

FJO:  One thing we haven’t talked about yet is the choreographic elements that are often a necessary ingredient to effectively perform your repertoire. It’s obviously very important to Michael Gordon’s piece.  This is the thing that I think people who haven’t written for this ensemble might not understand.  With a string quartet or a wind quintet, typically all the players have music stands and are playing in front of them.  But you move around, all of you.

LB:  Absolutely, yeah.

FJO:  So if a composer is creating a score in his or her studio and not working directly with you, the resulting piece might not be something that is always doable within the originally conceptualized time limits.

LB:  It’s very difficult to get that right.

NY:  With each piece, we talk about that aspect a lot—sometimes the logistics, but a lot of time about drama and about timing. It’s about suspense; it’s about just pure musicality, making something much more beautiful.

FJO:  So things you can do versus things you can’t do.  Things you feel uncomfortable doing.  Is there anything you wouldn’t do in a piece?

RG: Get bloody.

LB:  We would never want to injure ourselves.

NY:  Or the piano.

LB:  There is a limit. Many people would say that we’ve crossed that limit before. But a piano is actually a very strong instrument. The beating that the strings take from the hammers in a Beethoven sonata causes more wear to the instrument than a lot of the extended techniques we do.  However, that being said, there are things that do cross that line. We can’t unfortunately do a piece that asks us to snip the wires of the piano, unless it’s a site-specific piece that happens one time with an old piano.  Then we might do it.  But really, in all seriousness, we have to respect our own physicality and the instrument’s.

We have to respect our own physicality and the instrument’s.

RG:  If someone doesn’t want us doing things on a piano, that’s understandable.  We respect that and we’ll just change the rep.

FJO:  You’re all comfortable with improvisation, since obviously there are improvisatory elements as well as indeterminate elements in a lot of this music.

IA:  And there are two audience participation pieces that we’ve done, but they’re not very fleshed out.

FJO:  So do any of you write your own pieces?

RG:  I think we’ve all written stuff.

LB:  When I was younger I wrote some solo piano pieces for myself that probably should never see the light of day.  My own personal feeling is that composition is a practice and a craft. I would love to have the time to devote to developing that in a way that respects the notion of being a composer.  In some ways, I feel like I don’t have time to do that, so I don’t want to ever call myself a composer because I haven’t put in that time.

I don’t want to ever call myself a composer because I haven’t put in that time.

IA:  I’ve written a lot of youth percussion ensemble music, but that doesn’t take the same time as writing a piece for us to play.

NY:  So the short answer is we don’t play each other’s music.  Not really.

FJO:  I know that this might be difficult to talk about, but I have to bring up the M-Prize and the really profound article Mark Stryker wrote about it—“In first year, M-Prize chooses the past over the future.”  He deeply believed—as did I and a lot of other people—that you should have won the award rather than a quartet that’s devoted to standard repertoire, as fine as they are.  And I think that he really made a very persuasive case.  And yet, mea culpa, even he in that brilliant article wrote, and I quote, “To be clear: I’m not saying that Yarn/Wire’s music, as compelling as it was, is as great as the best of Debussy, Haydn, etc. No repertoire in classical music is more profound than the string quartet monuments that have stood the test of time.”  Is that true?

IA:  Well, they certainly stood the test of time.  You can’t argue with that point.

FJO:  So could a piece written for two pianos and two percussionists ever be as profound as one of the great string quartets?  Could it stand the test of time?  Will it stand the test of time?  Are there pieces that you’re playing that you feel are as great?

RG:  Can we even answer that? I don’t know.  I’ll be dead.

IA:  If someone else is going to play it and decide, maybe. Who knows what the politics will be like in the world?  Who knows anything?  There are pieces that feel good to me.  But I don’t know if they feel as good as—what were you playing yesterday? “Doin’ it Right”? Maybe Daft Punk will stand the test of time for that.

LB:  I think maybe what he’s trying to say is there is a historical tradition. It’s like saying music for flute is not as good as music for piano, because there’s a huge wealth and multi-century tradition of writing for keyboard instruments as a solo instrument.  So, I understand what he’s saying, but I think at the same time, in a way, it doesn’t matter.

A page from one of the drum parts for one of the pieces in Yarn/Wire's repertoire.

RG:  There are a lot of political things behind that question.  What kind of music are we talking about?  What’s the history of that music?  Where are we now?  Who gets to hear that music?  It doesn’t really matter without defining your audience first.  Without defining all those things, it’s a hard question to ask.  What about jazz? Go and listen to Ascension or Giant Steps.  To me, that’s just as strong as that other music.

LB:  Why do we have to limit our discussion to the classical canon?  Music is not necessarily bound anymore, so when we talk about music, it doesn’t feel relevant anymore to only talk about the “Western art tradition” as the only evolved or valuable tradition.  If people feel that way, that’s fine.  I don’t personally happen to feel that way, and I don’t think any of us really do.

RG:  Where does Michael Gordon fit in comparison with any of those other pieces?  How were those other pieces developed?  Were they just developed by themselves?  We don’t actually know one hundred percent.  So maybe we are following in that tradition.  But to compare the Gordon with a string quartet or a symphony or whatever, I don’t even know how that practice of composition is even relatable.

Layers of understanding and meaning accrue over time.

IA:  One thing I would add, though, is that string quartet played some Mendelssohn, or maybe Beethoven, and some Haydn. If you’re comparing that to some repertoire that we play currently—we’ve been rehearsing George Crumb’s piece for the past couple of days.  That piece is from the early ‘70s.  Something that we’ve referenced in our rehearsals is the tradition of playing that piece—like listening to the recording that our teachers made.  Talking about the string quartet repertoire, people have built on many interpretations. There’s now a performance practice that’s been enriched over generations.  I think that’s something that we can see happening with some pieces that maybe are older in our repertoire. Layers of understanding and meaning accrue over time.  There’s also that which you can’t really compare.

NY:  It’s not a value thing.  It’s simply a performance practice question.

RG:  It’s also partly an audience familiarity thing.  To be honest, if you’re familiar with a piece already, like maybe if someone hears composer X’s new piece five or six times over the course of their life, that becomes as important.

LB:  I can definitely attest to the fact that if you’ve never heard Beethoven before, and you hear a Beethoven string quartet, and all you grew up listening to is, say, salsa music, you have a very different reaction to hearing it for the very first time.  And it’s not the same as someone who grew up listening to classical music and going to concerts, or even just being steeped in a certain cultural tradition.  You know, growing up hearing film scores primes your brain to hear instrumental music in a way that if you come from a culture where that’s maybe not as important or as accessible, you’re not going to have that foundation.

FJO:  It’s interesting to hear you talk about listening to recordings of the Crumb, because one of the things that you’ve done in terms of legacy is that you’ve documented your performances and have made them available through recordings.  You have a disc on Wergo, you recorded a few discs for various independent labels, and you’ve also self-released three recordings—all three last year, in fact!  In an era where—for better or worse—recordings are far less remunerative, this is quite an investment. Do you feel that this is an effective way to get that music out beyond live performance?

IA:  It definitely reaches more people than it would if we didn’t do it.

NY:  I think this very last one, Yarn/Wire/Currents Vol. 3, sold really well. But it’s not about selling, it’s really about people hearing it and saying wow.  And then writing to us.  They’re not just complete strangers, but also colleagues who are being moved and are saying how much they enjoyed the music, how much they love certain pieces.  So I don’t think recordings are over because we cannot play Sam’s piece in every single city.

It’s not about selling, it’s really about people hearing it and saying wow.

RG:  When I was in college, I would buy all those Donaueschingen [Musiktage festival] records, those two to four CD sets.  I had no access to any of that music except through those CDs.  So as we’re generating this music, I was like this could be a really cool thing to be able to do something like what they did.  I mean, it’s nothing compared to Donaueschingen—but to have the music out there, so people could check it out if they don’t see the one concert of that stuff that we’re going to do in New York and maybe never again.  It is a way for people to have access to that music.  It’s really expensive to go into a studio, so what we do is we document the shows and we put it out.  You can donate for the CDs, and for the stream if you want.  But it doesn’t even matter.  Hopefully it’s a way for students and people who just like new music to get to the stuff.  And like Ning said, there’s been a really good response from that. The internet lets you see how many people are listening to stuff, and that’s cool.  But that’s beside the point.  The point is that more people have access to it.  And then you’ve developed this history—a performance practice, like Ian’s talking about.  All these things are part of creating that culture, that community behind the music, so it’s not just this one-off thing.  We spent so much time on it; the more people that get to hear it, the better.

FJO:  Another thing you’re doing to give something back to the community is you’re now off to do a ten-day workshop back at Stony Brook, of all places.  You’ve come full circle.

IA:  We’re going to play ten brand-new pieces by institute participants.

LB:  We and our instrumental participants—all of us together. We’re also going to play a few other—sort of “standard”—pieces. It’s weird to call them standard.

IA:  They’re non-premieres.

Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio holding hand instruments.

Yarn/Wire (from left to right): Russell Greenberg, Laura Barger, Ning Yu, and Ian Antonio.

Summer Residency Snapshots: Into the Workshop

This week I want to explore the bread and butter of composer/performer collaborations—workshopping sessions—and follow two collaborations at Avaloch that are using workshopping periods to develop nuanced interpretations while helping create more idiomatic notation and performance practices. For QuaQuaQua, workshops were an indispensable interpretive aid in preparing François Sarhan’s theatrical Situations. For Arx Duo, intense work with composers Alyssa Weinberg and Justin Rito allowed them to help composers who had never previously written for unusual percussion setups to create, notate, and revise quickly. Both projects highlight the way ideas in composer/performer collaborations may run in both directions at once: how input from performers can help composers create more easily interpretive, idiomatic work, and how composers can bring interpretive clarity to hard to parse scores while writing with their collaborators in mind.

QuaQuaQua and Situation-al Anxiety

QuaQuaQua is a trio of percussionists—Adam Rosenblatt, Terry Sweeney, and Tatevik Khoja-Eynatyan—interested in the boundaries between theater and concert performance. They came to Avaloch to work with French composer (and professor at Berlin’s UDK) François Sarhan on his Situations, a collection of short, witty, challenging, and diverse theatrical works. QuaQuaQua’s time with Sarhan was invaluable for its dense transmission of the kind of oral performance practice especially necessary for theatrical percussion works.

Because the act of playing percussion is inherently visual, percussion music has grappled perhaps more than any other instrument with the relationship between physical and musical gesture and how to expand the gestures required to play our instruments into larger actions. Although “theatrical music” is an extremely diverse category, percussionists often deal with the descendants of Mauricio Kagel’s “Instrumental Music Theater,” where “theatricality” is the result of extremely detailed prescriptive notation. In such works (Kagel’s Exotica or Dressur, Aperghis’s Les Guetteurs de Sons, or any of Trio Le Cercle’s retinue of commissions), performance practice is dictated by the material of the score, awareness of the general characterizational strategies used in parallel works, and, most effectively, a strong oral tradition—either from composer to performer or from performer to performer.

Adam Rosenblatt

The author with Adam Rosenblatt

QuaQuaQua’s work at Avaloch took this form, and the density of their workshop sessions allowed Sarhan to quickly and effectively articulate prescriptive details about the execution of his pieces while providing comment on overall performance practice.   In “Situation 15,” Khoja-Eynatyan and Sweeney sit on either side of Rosenblatt, all three staring ahead. With Kagel-ian severity Rosenblatt twice performs a series of rhythmic tapping gestures on either side of his head at coordinated heights. During the first iteration, Khoja-Eynatyan and Sweeney alternately raise and lower gongs, aluminum foil, knives, and scissors in a series of coordinated gestures. When Rosenblatt repeats the gestures, they occur simultaneously with attacks on drums, gongs, and woodblocks. Rosenblatt never hits the objects, but their placement relative to Rosenblatt’s hands is crucial to the piece’s narrative. During the first iteration, Rosenblatt appears to be hitting the “accessories.” In the second pass, Rosenblatt’s gestures miss the objects, but Sweeney and Khoja-Eynatyan’s hits provide an imagined attack. As one might imagine, this execution requires extreme precision. In this first section, the three players’ vertical positioning must be exact and their rhythmic timing silently coordinated. Rosenblatt’s hands must come extremely near, but never touch the alternately forgiving (aluminum foil) and painful (scissors, knives) objects. In the second section, QuaQuaQua needs to accurately convey a distinct variety of vertical positions with one hand while playing rhythmic figures with their other.


Terry Sweeney, Adam Rosenblatt, and Tatevik Khoja-Eynatyan of QuaQuaQua rehearse Francois Sarhan’s Situation No. 15

Rosenblatt characterizes Sarhan’s role with the ensemble as “more like a stage director than a composer.” He corrects their spatial placement and rhythmic execution, offering thoughts as the group rehearses rather than commenting on larger run-throughs. He argues for rhythmic fidelity while clarifying his unique and problematic notation for vertical positioning through demonstration and description. The piece’s score is specific about certain parameters but surprisingly mum about how the essential visual elements may be foregrounded.

sarhan excerpt 1

Over their week at Avaloch, I saw a really amazing relationship develop as QuaQuaQua gradually entered the performance practice of Sarhan’s Situations, both through the codified oral performance practice and the text of the piece. Because many of the “situations” depend on Sarhan’s explanations, QuaQuaQua wanted to use their time at Avaloch to turn Situations into what Rosenblatt calls “more easily transmutable documents,” either by recording performances with Sarhan or by editing the scores to provide additional descriptive and prescriptive information. QuaQuaQua’s presence enabled François to make quick changes to his scores that resulted in their idiomatic and impactful performance. In rehearsals, QuaQuaQua articulated passages where notation or difficulty made theatricality difficult to foreground, and Sarhan would revise with an eye towards making the visual elements of his works more easily read in his scores. At the same time, the documentation—the written scores and video recordings—gradually assimilated elements of QuaQuaQua’s performance. Rosenblatt noted that QuaQuaQua’s week at Avaloch began with the trio as interpreters, but ended with the score including their “personalities, conversations over the course of the week, and the relationships [they] had developed.”

Much like Invisible Anatomy, Adam felt that of the lack of pressure to leave Avaloch with a final product was “gigantically freeing,” and made QuaQuaQua more productive than in other rehearsal environments. In QuaQuaQua’s case, it set the groundwork for future collaborations while creating a more definitive performance practice around some of the Situations. The opportunity to perform, however, allowed them to receive constructive and friendly critical feedback. In the end, the trio left with important videos (check them out on QuaQuaQua’s YouTube channel) of their work with François, and a sense of interpretive empowerment. The group will be performing some of these Situations at the Capital Fringe Theater in Washington, D.C. in early September.

arx duo: 4 hands, 3 composers, 2 percussionists, 1 set-up

While the new notational systems and visual theatricality of Sarhan’s Situations are daunting, I would argue that most pieces for percussion include similar challenges. Typically, percussion works adopt individualistic instrumentations, individualistic notation systems, and unique sound worlds. The upside is that our repertoire is colorful and dynamic. The downside is that almost none is sight-readable. In “Developing an Interpretive Context: Learning Brian Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet” (later revised into a book chapter), percussion demigod Steve Schick reflects on how “an artificial skin of practical considerations must be stretched tightly across the lumps of a living, breathing piece” when learning it. Noting that in much percussion music, instrumentation—the very sound of a piece—is not extremely determined, he asks, “How do decisions made during the initial phases of learning, although fundamentally different as mental activities from those of the final product, shape and make inevitable an interpretive content which steers the piece in performance?”

percussion instruments

Terry Sweeney’s percussion instruments for Francois Sarhan’s Situation No. 15

As a result, most percussionists are used to learning a percussion piece twice: picking an assortment of instruments, finding a set up, and learning the material, then revising both to maximize idiomatic playing and interpretive flexibility. In some cases, this process is shortened by determinacy from composers, but in others (Xenakis’ Psappha, for example) the score seems to ask more questions than a performance can answer.

arx duo, the virtuosic tandem of Garrett Arney and Mari Yoshinaga, came to Avaloch with an intriguing percussive project which ended up making this process more efficient. I followed their rehearsals with Justin Rito and Alyssa Weinberg. (Also a part of this project was Nick DiBernadino, who was only at Avaloch for a short time)

For Alyssa Weinberg, the process of creating her Table Talk began with sonic and logistical brainstorming. Weinberg had an initial idea for a “four hands” vibraphone set up—a single vibraphone played with both players standing on opposite sides of the instrument and facing one another. At the same time, Weinberg was interested in preparing the vibraphone, placing various objects on the surface of the instrument to allow for quick pitched and unpitched material.   Yoshinaga and Arney began with Alyssa’s setup and brainstormed additional instruments, suggesting types of sounds that were most idiomatic to play, most durable, and had the widest range of colors. To Weinberg, the fact that the three “collectively constructed a new instrument together that day” granted Yoshinaga and Arney more authority to give idiomatic musical ideas, textural possibilities, and other ways of altering the setup of the piece over the course of the week.

arx duo

Mari Yoshinaga and Garrett Arney of arx duo rehearse with Justin Rito while Michael Compitello looks on

Each day Weinberg would write a new section, meet with arx to workshop it, and then revise and expand. The brevity of her initial ideas allowed her to work with arx very soon in the compositional process, and helped to eliminate extensive revision, unclear notation, and fiendishly difficult passages. The three worked together to develop a notation system and physical setup that made the most sense for the sonic ideas Alyssa had, and she argues that “the piece [couldn’t] be what it is without Garrett and Mari.”

With Justin Rito and All Set, srx followed a similar process of daily sketches, feedback, and revision. The three decided they wanted a piece that was “four-hands on one drum set,” and their work centered a musical lexicon that would be visually arresting, eventually settling on a small setup of drum set components around which both percussionists rotate. Rito, Weinberg, and DiBernadino’s pieces were premiered shortly after arx’s stay at Avaloch.

In this dialogue, both srx and their composer friends used their expertise to create works in which both parties have ownership. Arney and Yoshinaga used their expertise as percussionists to helped Rito and Weinberg explore timbral possibilities, codify and organize their sounds into logistically and theatrically cogent setups, and design notation systems for maximum playability. Weinberg and Rito supplied narrative possibilities, theatrical connections, and surprising sound combinations. At the same time, their collaborations leveraged their friendship and flexibility to reduce time learning, rehearsing, revising, and re-learning complex percussion music.

In honor of the impending opening of the academic semester, next week’s edition is a preemptive “What I Did On My Summer Vacation” collaboration book report, talking about New Morse Code’s work at Avaloch over the past two years.

The Role Of College Teaching In The Life of A Creative Musician

The Grass is Greener

Photo by Scot Woodman on Flickr

“There’s no way I could come to your university and perform with your students. Academic institutions suck all the creative life out of me. I hate them. I try to avoid them as much as possible.”
“But William Paterson University is a creative place,” I responded. “We have a great New Music Series and an amazing jazz program and we do a lot of commissioning and improvising out there. I think you’d like the vibe.”
“Nope,” he said. “I appreciate your offer, but my experience with schools is that they are creativity killers. They’re just so conservative and backwards thinking. Thanks but no thanks.”

Sigh. Once again I found myself trying in vain to defend the profession of teaching music at the university level and the academic institutions that support it. I had offered this prominent New York City composer/performer a good fee, a nice sushi dinner, and the opportunity to have his piece performed by a dedicated group of students and faculty who would put months of preparation into it, but I was getting nowhere. I let it go and we talked about other things.

This musician’s attitude was particularly intense, but it wasn’t the first time I had encountered such resistance to academic institutions. Over the years, many of my friends and colleagues across the U.S. who are freelance musicians and specialize in contemporary music have told me that they dislike schools of any sort and they want nothing to do with them. They’ve either implied or stated outright that if I were really good at what I do then I would be able to make it as a freelancer and I wouldn’t need to teach. They believe the old adage of “Those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach.”

At first I just shrugged this off as arrogant first-world thinking. I thought that in the interest of enhancing their street credibility, they could afford to discredit the system that helped them develop their skills, because in the end there was still plenty of money and work to go around. But after considering it more carefully I came to the conclusion that the issue is more complicated and subtle and deserves exploration. I’ll explain, but first, some background.


I’ve been teaching at the tenure-track college level for thirteen years. Even before I had my DMA from the Eastman School of Music in hand at twenty-six years old, I had landed a tenure-track job at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. I taught ethnomusicology and percussion there for three years (2001–2004) and then landed my current position at William Paterson University (WP) in Wayne, New Jersey, twenty miles west of New York City. At WP I teach percussion, contemporary music, Indian classical music, and improvisation. I was tenured in 2009 and am currently at the rank of Associate Professor.
I set my sights on a college teaching job when I was a freshman during my undergraduate years at the University of Michigan. I knew by then that my options were fairly limited in terms of making a living in the U.S. as a composer and percussionist. Most of my colleagues in the percussion area were trying to land jobs with orchestras. I’ve never found orchestral percussion playing particularly interesting, so I scratched that option off the list right away. The other possibility was a job playing percussion with a military band, but it was still basically an orchestral gig, so I scratched that one off the list too.

That basically left freelance work or college teaching. For me, college teaching was a better choice. To start, I’ve always enjoyed teaching. Secondly, I knew that it would take some time to find the right job and that I would have to jump through some hoops to tailor the job to what I wanted, but I also knew that when I got things where I wanted them I would have a stable income, good health insurance, and a solid retirement package. But here’s the salient point: those things really only mattered to me because they would give me the freedom to perform and compose the music I wanted.

Freelancing as a composer/performer never appealed to me for one simple reason: I’ve never wanted to play or write music that I don’t believe in. I knew that as a freelance percussionist I would need to play any and all gigs to survive—especially for the first decade or so I was in a city—which would likely include playing in bands for corporate gigs and bars, musical theatre shows, commercial recording sessions, and orchestral percussion gigs. As a composer I would likely need to write commercial music. I did all those things in the first few years I was working, but I did them knowing that it was just to round out my musical experience to make me a better teacher. I didn’t want to be doing them in the later part of my life.

Of course, I would never criticize anyone who has taken that path. Many of my colleagues have an agnostic attitude towards music. So long as they’re playing drums (or violin or whatever), they are happy, no matter what the style or situation. The same goes for many of my composer friends. I respect them greatly. After all, it’s very difficult to survive as a freelancer anywhere in the world. But I’ve always felt that it wasn’t the right path for me, and many others feel the same. My burning passion has always been experimental music and world music. [1] What I needed was complete freedom to pursue any musical direction I want, no matter the commercial value.

Of course, there are other ways to go about this. America has a long history of composers and performers working jobs unrelated to the music field in order to pay the bills. Charles Ives working in the insurance business, Philip Glass driving a taxi and working as a plumber in the early part of his career, and John Cage working a variety of jobs until he was nearly fifty years old are but a few famous examples. I also considered that option, but I couldn’t get the math to work out, both in terms of finances and time. If I worked just a few hours a day at Starbucks or another entry-level job I’d have the time and mental space I needed to pursue my artistic vision, but not the money. Everything I earned would get sucked into paying bills and I’d have nothing left over to invest in hiring good players to perform my music, make recordings, buy equipment, build press materials, etc.—the basic things you need to form a career. This is especially true in big cities like New York where the basic minimum wage has fallen far behind the cost of living over the last forty years. Steve Reich could drive a cab in the early 1970s and rent an apartment for $50 a month and save a bit of money to pay his ensemble members and release recordings, but that’s much more difficult now.
If I got involved with a more serious career like selling insurance or working as a lawyer I would have the money I needed, but not the time. I’m an incredibly energetic guy, but even I have my limits. Fifty hours a week at the office wouldn’t leave much mental space or physical energy for composing sessions, long rehearsals, and touring.

College teaching seemed like the perfect answer because the hours are generally much lower but the pay is reasonable. Most weeks I’m up at the University about three to four days. One of those days is quite long, from about 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., but the other days are shorter. On average I’d say my time teaching and attending to various administrative duties is about twenty to thirty hours a week, for about eight months a year.

There are two things about those hours that make them special, however. First, they are flexible. I tour many weeks each semester and it’s very easy for me to rearrange rehearsals, classes, and lessons. Second, I’m immersed in fascinating, quality music during those hours and I have the freedom to choose good repertoire. I pick the pieces I’ll conduct, I organize my classes how I like, and when working with students one on one in percussion or composition lessons I help them select the repertoire. I also have a laboratory at my fingertips to help develop my own music. That all gives me a lot of job satisfaction because I have some degree of creative control; I’m not just taking orders from someone.

However, lest you might be getting ready to write a letter to the Governor of New Jersey expressing your anger at lazy professors who only work twenty to thirty hours a week and enjoy a fat salary, let me put those hours in perspective. Those are only the hours I spend at the university. When you add in my composing time each day, my practicing, and several hours a day on email and the phone for hustling the various business aspects of my career outside the university (as well as the university administrative work), the hours top out closer to sixty or seventy, sometimes more.

Of course, college teaching jobs are hard to get. When my freelance musician friends make disparaging statements to me about college teachers being second-rate players or composers, I gently remind them that based on one’s performance recital and interview, getting a job usually means someone has beat out well over 100 applicants for a position—most of whom are freelancers. And being a successful university professor requires more than just teaching and playing skills. One must know how to interact with Deans and Presidents, apply for grants, and navigate the various administrative and political aspects of working in a large organization. Maintaining this balance is more difficult than it may seem and many people don’t have the knack for it.
There is something else many freelancers don’t know: being successful at a university gig and climbing the academic ladder has more to do with what you do outside the university than what you do inside. Once in a great while someone will be denied tenure because his or her teaching is bad, but usually someone is fired at the university because he or she didn’t have the ambition and vision to build a successful career outside the confines of the academic institution. This is a great boon to serious musicians who teach, as it justifies spending time away from the university while on tour or making plenty of room in one’s schedule for composing.

There are three basic criteria that promotion and tenure committees look at when evaluating a candidate. First, the quality of their teaching as measured through student and faculty peer evaluations. Second, the quality and quantity of a candidate’s professional life outside the university, and third is service to the university (committees, panels, etc). There are a few universities who bill themselves as “teaching” universities in which the teaching is the most important criteria and professional work doesn’t matter, but in general there is no question that one’s professional activity is what guarantees employment. “Publish or perish.” That is why most college professors are excellent players and composers. They have to be or they’ll lose their jobs.


But what about what that prominent NYC composer/performer said? Are university music programs conservative places that have little use for truly creative thinking?
Yes, sometimes they are!

I’ve spent hundreds of hours of my life sitting through faculty meetings and serving on various committees and in my experience university music departments are often risk-adverse. There are two reasons for this.
First, frequently updating curriculum (or simply letting students design their own with guidance from a professor, which is what I advocate) requires flexibility from the faculty. One must be willing to teach something different every semester and take on the role of adviser and collaborator rather than top-down mentor. However, many faculty are unwilling to do this, mostly out of ennui. Once many professors have become comfortable teaching something, they are unwilling to investigate new ways to apply their knowledge to a rapidly-changing art form. Unfortunately the classic image of the professor wearing the dandruff-covered sweater jacket, peering over reading glasses at ancient notes that he or she made decades ago (on paper no doubt) is all too alive and well.

There is little the students or other faculty can do about this. Unless a tenured professor does something illegal, the unions hold so much power it is nearly impossible to fire him or her. Indeed, this is the primary criticism people have leveled against the tenure system: that it fosters stagnation and only serves the professors. This is a fair criticism and one I’ve expressed many times (and I’m a tenured professor). But getting rid of tenure entirely would be very dangerous. That would put the employment of the faculty at the whims of higher administrators, most of who know virtually nothing about the field of music and are often quick to fire and hire people to serve their own career interests.

The solution is to keep the tenure system, but never guarantee life-long employment. Rather, one should be able to earn increasingly longer sentences of job security. So, for example, one could come up for review after one year, then two years, then four years, then perhaps every six or eight years for the rest of one’s career at a given institution. The reviews should have teeth and no matter how long someone has been at an institution he or she should sweat at the conclusion of each block, even if they’ve been there thirty years. This would force faculty to stay professionally active and keep refining their teaching and answering the challenge of working in a dynamic musical culture. This structure would be fairer to the students—who deserve professors who are professionally active—and it’s fairer to the majority of the faculty at any given institution who are burning the candle at both ends.

The other reason most university music departments are so risk adverse is because the canon takes on too much weight over time. The great composers of the past wrote so much great music and it takes so much time to get through even a fraction of it that it can be difficult for professors to figure out ways to balance a thorough education in the old masterpieces with more modern skill sets (e.g., music software literacy or world music awareness). Some schools have responded to this challenge by throwing out the old masterpieces all together and letting the students study whatever they want, which usually means pop music. This often falls under the guise of postmodernism. “Down with The Man!” “No more letting dead males dictate our aesthetics!”

However, those dead males wrote a lot of great music. Although I’d like to see more flexibility in curriculums, there is no question that working through the standard repertoire develops one’s technique better than anything else, and technique is important. One thing I’ve noticed after thirteen years of professional work with the best contemporary classical and jazz musicians in America is that without exception, the most creative players have a thorough grounding in the classics. A handful of them got it outside of school, but almost all of them procured it during their high school and university years. Indeed, I frequently hear “new music” by young composers who have eschewed the classic studies of counterpoint, orchestration, and harmony because it’s too “conformist” or some other such response. The results are dreadful and predictable: poorly orchestrated tunes that lack coherence. Even worse is the performer who has refused to grapple with the standard repertoire and has developed their “own thing.” Sloppy tuning, bad rhythm, and lousy tone are the primary results.

A basic working knowledge of the canon also gives one a key into a fraternity of professional musicians. It is basic musical literacy. For example, if you are a classical musician and you don’t know anything about the music of Palestrina or Stravinsky and you don’t know who Yo-Yo Ma is you won’t be able to communicate effectively with the best classical musicians working today. (And more importantly, you’ll have deprived yourself of some of the greatest music ever written and performed.)
One must be careful not to confuse conformity with discipline. Even though university music programs need to find more creative and dynamic ways to balance the study of the canon with the diverse skill sets needed to negotiate the modern musical landscape, studying the canon and developing a highly refined technique are still paramount. You can’t escape it. Studying the classical masterpieces of the past only fosters conformity if the professor insists that his or her students blindly imitate that music or interpretations of that music. (In the case of jazz this would take the form of stopping with the Abersold method. That is, getting to a point where you can imitate the great jazz musicians of the past, but can’t go any further.)

However, good teachers do much more than that. They open students’ ears and souls to the creative spirit underlying all great music and thus enable the transference of that creativity from one generation to another. What that New York City composer/performer that I quoted at the beginning of this article failed to understand is that at William Paterson University (and other quality music schools) we focus on the classics because that is the best framework for a young musician to gain the skills needed to perform all manner of modern music. That doesn’t make our institution uncreative or conformist. Quite the opposite: our dedication to creative music requires us to focus on the canon. Indeed, what we want for our students is for them to become the most creative musicians of their generation, but first they need some chops.

What music schools and departments need is balance, and I think art departments do it better than we do. Art majors start creating art from their very first day, in different mediums, while simultaneously studying the great classics through their art history courses. There’s no reason we can’t do this in music departments. Every music student in America should be composing, improvising, and learning music software as part of their university education, all the while studying Beethoven symphonies and Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue. As I said at the beginning of this section, this can be done in a way that maximizes each student’s individual interests and talents by letting them design their own curriculum under the guidance of a supportive mentor. It might take a bit more effort on the part of the professors, but the result would be a much more dynamic and relevant experience for everyone.


The big point that critics of college teaching fail to understand is that teaching music is more than just teaching music. Yes, of course a teacher has to teach a student how to hold a bow, or how to realize second-species counterpoint, or how to play a double-stroke roll, but it’s more than that. A good teacher connects the great musicians and musical works of the past with the present, while paving the road for the future. This doesn’t just mean technique, rather, it means connecting with the wildly creative spirits that flowed through each and every great musician of the past. This is one of the things I love about teaching: I regularly come into contact with wonderful music and by figuring out how to help other people plumb the depths of these sonic wonders I am refreshed. My passion for creative music is renewed time and again.

I also see people change. Over the course of four or five years my students become more sensitive, intelligent, and creative because of their contact with great music. Ultimately, it is these deeply spiritual experiences that motivate my teaching, not financial stability.

Each of us is a link in a chain that extends outwards to infinity in either direction. None of us were hatched from eggs yesterday (to borrow a phrase from J.M. Coetzee). We all owe a huge debt to those people who spent the extra hours with us to make our performing and composing that much better, and opened our ears and hearts and minds to the masterpieces of the past. Our teachers didn’t just give us employable skills, they deeply enriched our lives. We can repay this debt in many ways, but one of the most powerful is by doing the same for others. It’s a massive challenge, but ultimately a musical one.
Undoubtedly my attitude in this regard comes partly from my deep involvement with North Indian Hindustani classical music. In India teaching is held in high regard and even the most commercially successful performers (e.g., Zakir Hussain) make time in their lives for teaching. My gurus, the renowned Dhrupad masters the Gundecha Brothers, regularly bring their top students on tour with them. The students join them on stage and play the tanpura (the drone instrument) and often sing backup vocals. Teaching actually happens on stage, even for major concerts. When the show is over it is common for the teachers to quiz the students on what they just heard and for the students to ask questions about the performance, even very specific technical ones. Thus the teaching and the performing are seamlessly intertwined. The past, present, and future connected as one.
Of course, some people have no talent for teaching or interest in it. But their deficiencies or attitudes shouldn’t be twisted into virtues. As with most things in life, the reality is highly contextual and subtle, much more than the crude distinctions many people make between “teachers” and “freelancers.” Yes, there are some bad teachers out there, but there are also many wonderful teachers who are highly accomplished performers and composers outside of the academy. And yes, many college music programs are procrustean and need improvement, but they still serve an important basic function to give our future generations the basic skills they need to participate in creative music making at the highest levels.

There is nothing more important to the future of creative music than passionate and talented teachers. Let us all reevaluate the role of teaching in the realm of creative contemporary music, and let us be glad that many of us college professors are working tirelessly to inspire creative music-making in future generations.


1. I realize that I’m drawing somewhat of a line here between “commercial” music and “experimental” music, and I admit that that line is quite fuzzy and often doesn’t exist clearly at all. All music has both elements to it, but it is a matter of degree. There is quite a difference in intent—and I would say artistic effect—between the music of, say, Justin Bieber and Charles Wuorinen. No matter how clever one is in trying to erase that line and intellectualize the supposed similarities between Mr. Bieber and Mr. Wuorinen, the fact is that the audiences are different, the venues are different, composing and learning and performing the music is different, and the emotional experience of hearing the music is quite different. No disrespect to Mr. Bieber, but I much prefer Mr. Wuorinen’s music, or Mr. Cage’s music, or Mr. Reich’s music, or Ravi Shankar’s music, and it is that music and music that is created in that spirit to which I have devoted my life.


Payton MacDonald
Payton MacDonald is a composer/percussionist/singer/improviser/administrator/educator. He has created a unique body of work that draws upon his extensive experience with East Indian tabla drumming and Dhrupad singing, Jazz, European classical music, and the American experimental tradition. MacDonald was educated at the University of Michigan and Eastman School of music. He has toured the world as a performer and composed music for many different ensembles.

Todd Lerew Wins the 2014 ACF National Composition Contest

Todd Lerew - credit Nedda Atassi

Todd Lerew
Photo by Nedda Atassi

The American Composers Forum has named CalArts student Todd Lerew the winner of the 2014 National Composition Contest for his work flagging entrainment of ultradian rhythms and the consequences thereof. Lerew has been awarded a cash prize of $2,000 and his piece will be toured by So Percussion in future seasons. The piece was commissioned by ACF along with the works of two other competition finalists–Michael Laurello and Kristina Warren–which were workshopped by So Percussion as part of the the group’s Summer Institute at Princeton University and premiered on July 20.

Based in Los Angeles, Lerew (b. 1986) works with invented acoustic instruments, repurposed found objects, and unique preparations of traditional instruments. He is the inventor of the Quartz Cantabile, which uses a principle of thermoacoustics to convert heat into sound, and has presented the instrument at Stanford’s CCRMA, the American Musical Instrument Society annual conference, the Guthman Musical Instrument Competition at Georgia Tech, and Machine Project in Los Angeles. He is the founder and curator of Telephone Music, a collaborative music and memory project based on the children’s game of Telephone, the last round of which was released as an exclusive download to subscribers of music magazine The Wire. His solo piece for e-bowed gu zheng, entitled Lithic Fragments, is available on cassette on the Brunch Groupe label. His pieces have been performed by members of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, the Wet Ink Ensemble (New York), the Now Hear Ensemble (Santa Barbara), and the Canticum Ostrava choir (Czech Republic).

flagging entrainment of ultradian rhythms and the consequences t

Sample page from Lerew’s flagging entrainment of ultradian rhythms and the consequences thereof.

Composer and vocalist Kristina Warren holds a bachelor’s in music composition from Duke University and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in composition and computer technologies from the University of Virginia.

Sample page from Warren's score for Choose.

Sample page from Warren’s score for Choose.

Composer and pianist Michael Laurello is an artist diploma candidate in composition at the Yale School of Music. He earned an master’s in composition from Tufts University and a bachelor’s in music synthesis (electronic production and design) from Berklee College of Music.

Sample page from Michael Laurello's Overwhelming Capacity.

Sample page from Laurello’s Overwhelming Capacity.

The National Composition Contest is open to composers currently enrolled in graduate and undergraduate institutions in the United States; this year’s installment drew more than 250 applicants from 39 states. Each finalist received an award of $1,000 plus an additional stipend of $750 to help defray expenses associated with attending the workshop and studio performance.
The competition began during the 2010-11 season as the Finale National Composition Contest, partnering with the group eighth blackbird. JACK Quartet was the ensemble for 2011-12. The competition went on hiatus last season, returning in September 2013 under its new name, the American Composers Forum National Composition Contest.

(from the press release)