Tag: quality

On Big Questions of Creativity and Intention

or: How I learned to stop worrying and love Zuckerberg’s machine.

As with other areas in the many realms of public discourse these days, there are times when, for me, taking a gander at the old quotidian chit-chat stream on Facebook has just become unbearable.  It’s OutrageBook in these trying times, or LookAtMeWinningBook, which it’s now been for years, with a cast of players who are more or less successful in navigating the subtle side of the #winning game that varies depending on your own feed.  Once in a while, still, it’s DesperationBook, with an alarming call for help nestled in there after LookAtWhatBabyFedPuppyBook posts (that might just be my very helpful personal algorithms at work, knowing what I will definitely click on), but we’re in an era of savvy self-marketers who are constantly improving our posts Content™ and protecting our online fake persona Brand™.  Facebook is not for musings on self-harm (or even, yes, suicide, back in the day) anymore. Now we know better, somehow: that’s just not what our friends? Audience™ wants to see.

Too cynical?  Sure it is.  Also it isn’t really the point of this missive.  We each have our own way with each of these soc med platforms. Twitter has turned into Land Of Dark Thoughts Quickly Typed in recent months, for example, although I don’t deny the geniuses in our midst. But it has seemed that for the entire 2010s thus far, Facebook has been a place for composers and co. (whether to chat, laugh, share work, share opportunities, discuss musical issues, discuss politics, fight like hell) to come together.  The same is true for actors, string players, academics, doctors, and bankers, to some extent, I’m assuming.  But for composers, or for the several hundred spread over six continents whom I’m FBfriends with, at any rate, it has functioned as one of the relevant gathering places for those of us who couldn’t make it to the show last night. Our lot, as a rule, doesn’t congregate.  The quartet or troupe or surgery team needs to be in the room, together.  We work best alone, no matter what TV comedy writers have to say about the creative process, and we know that from years of trying to write with a hangover.  We don’t, en masse, otherwise come together.  Maybe this place is our water cooler.

For composers, Facebook has functioned as one of the relevant gathering places for those of us who couldn’t make it to the show last night.

For me personally, I can safely * though not proudly * say that a day going by without me checking FB has been a rarity in the last five years.  I’m a freelancer who works from home, and so in that time, my days of not leaving the house or speaking to another person (esp. while in deadline/work-trance mode) have outnumbered my no-social-media days by the dozens or hundreds.  I say, without too much embarrassment, that most of my hours are spent in solitude, never more so than in the past few years since I’ve moved to a new city.  I go on Facebook and the like to dial in.  I very much suspect that I’m not the only professional scribbler to do so.   Even so, this recent sour mood at the virtual party felt like just too much, so several weeks ago and a bit on a whim, I quit, cold-turkey style, for a full seven days.  Apps off phone, bookmarks flicked away.  I realized what an incredible habit I’d acquired, but also that after three days, I felt just fine about what I didn’t know about everyone else.  I missed #metoo and #notallmen entirely.

A lower case f (the Facebook logo) surrounded by a collection of pills and tablets.

But what to do when it was time to log back in?  I headed straight for one of my old personal standbys, SnarkBook, announcing that I was back and did you miss me and that I was so happy not to have missed anything!  Since then, I’ve not reloaded apps or pages so as to make them easy to get to, and have remained pleased with my Newly Distant Daddy involvement.  But on day two, without really giving it too much thought, I went to an old trope in terms of my posts:

A screenshot of a Facebook Post by Sean Shepherd from October 25, 2017 at 5:25pm. The full text of the post is printed directly below in the body of the article.

Here’s a composer question for composers:

Looking back on all of your work, and trying to be objective about it*, do you feel that the pieces that had some special emotional significance to you while you were writing them resulted in (objectively*) better music?

Are the ones we want to be the best really the best?

*understood as probably not possible

I find that the “composer question for composers” post pops up every few days, somewhere on my feed, although sometimes in statement form.  Generally, it’s coming from a fairly personal place for the author, although some like to rouse the rabble and say something #controversial once in a while. Although as I say, I read a lot of outrage from people who appear to agree with each other these days, so the “Beethoven(/Brahms/Mahler/Boulez) sucks” comments, being too hot to touch (even if they are about dead people who really can’t hear them) have been on the dwindle.  Instead, they range from shoptalk to the downright philosophical in terms of content (the threads that veer into style can turn into 500-comment monsoons and are just downright poisonous. Sad!).  My occasional forays into the genre seem no different.  Whether off the top of the noggin (“Just heard Copland Dickinson Songs – still genius! I’d forgotten. Had you?” or a musi-business bone-to-pick thing), or a strongly worded, fiercely grandstanding COMPOSED POST about gender and programming, I realize: Okay, yes I do want to talk about this stuff sometimes.   And whenever that seems apparent, from anyone, it seems like the group is eager to jump in.

I found the response to my composer question for composers, after a week away from AngryBook, to be unexpectedly delightful.  In addition to the many composers, those who could relate—writers, performers, and others—also joined in, almost immediately.  I asked and ran—never really offering my own thoughts—and returned after some time only find a whole world of perspective.  Over the next 24 hours, there were more than 50 comments, from the casual “Nope” to the poetic, with sprinkles of the typical self-congratulation and snark we can surely expect from any bunch of composers so gathered.  Yet, it has also dawned on me: never have I been in a seminar or lecture room where so many would speak so freely.

Never have I been in a seminar or lecture room where so many would speak so freely.

This was especially interesting to me in this case, given my hasty choice and inclusion of several words that I know very well will shut a room full of composers right up.  Words like “objective,” “best,” and “emotional” are hot, hot words amongst us, a group that would disagree as to their meaning before even getting into their usage.  Had I really formulated a Serious Question for Serious Thought And Conversation, I would have likely afforded myself the time to, well, basically dodge the question.   Aye!—there’s the rub.  Facebook isn’t the place for formal questions and stilted answers, both designed to impress our colleagues (and besides, I’m well out of grad school. * taps mic *  Is this thing on?). These words were about me—me, a composer.  Hey, you, a composer, what are your thoughts?  And hi, it’s your old pal Sean. Use all the dangerous words you want; it’s only Facebook.  Let’s communicate, right here in public.

A tasseled graduation cap atop a blue box containing a white lower case f (the Facebook logo).

“Best” in music is a danger word.  My conservatory education, which at times consisted of preposterously idiotic nuggets—such as “Brahms is the best and also Tchaikovsky is not the best”—presented as some kind of acceptable canonic knowledge, is a constant reminder for me of danger words like best.  Six minutes after my post, John Glover, who I’ve known since he was 18 and I not too much older, was on to me.  “Asking to make the ‘best’ is usually a recipe for disaster. The only thing I find consistently helpful is maintaining a feeling of softness and curiosity.”  Andrew McManus soon sought further clarification: “Do you really mean ‘the best’ piece, or ‘the most successful at accomplishing the goals of that particular work’?”

It occurred to me: yes, “best” is a dangerous word, and I don’t often use it when talking about other’s work.  (Is Daphnis Ravel’s best work? Yes. Is Gaspard Ravel’s best work? Yes. Useless, even to throw opinions around with.) But also: yes, I most definitely mean “best” when I’m talking about my own.  I have a best piece (perhaps, but not necessarily, my most significant piece), and that is how I choose to think about it.  I’m thoroughly aware that within my own body of work, I can point to “good” and “bad” moments as I choose to see them, and for the sake of my work, I most certainly apply scrutiny and criticism to everything I make.   I do let it bog me down, I do wish I could be better at the job, and I most certainly wish my best was better—I’m an optimist in the hope that my best does in fact get better.  It’s an important part of my daily working process—making “good” work to feel good about the work I make.  But I’m also old enough to see that we eventually just become more aware of our own limitations.  And yet I hear John’s message and Andrew’s context loud and clear—a little softness and curiosity could go well with all that awareness.

Predictably, though, throughout the discussion, the hotter, deeper buzzword-topic—that big one—was emotion.  Again, my minds drifts back toward my education—music and emotion; emotion and music—this could get out of hand so very quickly!  I also think of the 15 years that I sat in seminar rooms with mostly straight white men and all of my years of weekly lessons with teachers who were nearly all straight white men, and how comfortable I felt in discussing my emotional world and its connections to my attempted artmaking.  Which is to say: I was not.  Usually they, also, were not.  But I was lucky with those men. Once in while we were able to open up, and I could talk about what I was really talking about. Thank god for that.  But much more often there were other things that were easier to discuss—for Xenakis, design, for Messiaen, harmony, etc. Talking about the Greek War of Independence or a deeply held Catholicism could get messy and speculative and VERY not-objective.  Let’s look at the notes!

For a performer, dealing with emotion is an intrinsic part of one’s education. On stage, emotion will not be denied.  We each have seen all manner of trajectory in front of our eyes—from good to great to sublime, from bad to worse, general lethargy, general mania—guided simply by responding to a performer’s emotional state in live performance.  Their training in channeling the energy for the better begins as soon as they pick up a bow.  But as a general topic of interest to composers, it’s one of the (many) uncomfortable subjects we, in general, choose to leave off the syllabus.  As a result, when a composer says they are not emotionally connected to the work they make, I tend to believe them.  Emotion is for others. We’ve just been diligently putting notes on a page, by ourselves, for months. Please, anyone else, emote away!  With passion, please!

Emotion is one of the (many) uncomfortable subjects composers, in general, choose to leave off the syllabus.

On the question of a personal emotional connection to the music during composition, there were great guns in the conversation threads throughout, first from Dalit Warshaw: “I find that one’s perspective toward one’s music is constantly in flux, and that—when revisited after a respite of (even) years—new wisdoms, about one’s self, the nature of one’s writing, continually emerge… Re your question: I’ve wondered the same thing, and do tend to think it may be the case, perhaps because, when deeply in touch with one’s emotions, one is perhaps also more in touch with one’s creative intuition and inner freedom. The trick, I think, is to be like a Method actor in finding the emotional sincerity in every work one writes.”  Alan Fletcher agrees with the idea of flux over time, writing “very often the pieces I doubted most in composition reveal themselves to me as better than I thought—not always, though. And pieces I am enthusiastic about during composition come to seem too obvious, or something…. I’m not talking about the motivation for the work, just the impression I have of how well it’s going. But I do find a correlation with works written from a deep emotional impulse and works that end up satisfying me in the end.”

Reynold Tharp is acutely aware of this turbulent connection.  “My best pieces are the ones in which I had some kind of strong emotional engagement with the compositional process and the desired affective or expressive character,” he says.  “Also often they’re the pieces during which I oscillate the most between thinking they’re great and thinking they’re awful as I’m working on them. If I don’t have an emotional connection with the idea of the piece or what I feel I can do within the limits of the project or medium, it will almost always end up being a weaker piece. Of course, even the more strongly felt pieces all have their flaws too…”  John Mackey has found his balance by looking outward, writing, “I think my best two pieces are the two that I wrote about loss—but not my own. Putting myself into an empathetic place about somebody else’s loss gave me just enough distance to still approach the pieces with craft first, rather than simply emoting on the page.”

For Clare Glackin, the process is not easy to pinpoint, saying, “I think it comes down to what I call “essence”—kind of hard to define but I use this word to describe the soul of a piece—the specific mood or aura or thing that the piece is expressing that’s hard to put into words. The things I’ve written that have been most emotionally significant to me have stronger essences. And to me a stronger essence almost always equals a better piece, as long as the composer has the skill to realize their intention. Without a specific essence, the music might be decent but it is more generic and boring than it would be otherwise.”

I do believe the stakes change with the task/piece at/in hand, and Matthew Peterson’s comment resonated for me and brought the conversation back to earth a little: “I always have to like and be enthralled in some way by what I create, but it’s hard to write a funky, weird baritone sax solo ‘from the heart’ or some sort of inner investment.”  It reminded me that we can’t always be sure what we are or aren’t saying or how from the heart we really are.  I recently heard a piece for the first time in years, one I finished in 2011 in the wake of a mutually devastating breakup with a longtime boyfriend.  In no way connected in my mind at the time, the first thing that occurred to me upon hearing it again: “Whoa Nelly, that is some real Breakup Music™!”  Jefferson Friedman hit that nail on the head:  “Not to be reductive, but honestly all the best ones were about a girl.”

Are the pieces we want to be the best really the best?

And what of the answers to my million-dollar question?  Are the pieces we want to be the best really the best?  A sea of noes flooded the comments early on.  Marcos Balter went further: “Actually, my best ones are almost always the ones I composed the fastest, without thinking much of them.”  But the yeses began to balance the scales; Felipe Lara wrote that, for him, “my favorite ones of mine are the ones I work on the hardest—sort of opposite of Marcos.”  Felipe and I also share the same attending secondary fear.  If the answer is yes, that the pieces we are the most ambitious about, or attached to, confused/rattled by, are in fact for us, the (non-objective) best—is it only because we want them to be?

A group of seven rectangular box-shaped crayon sticks in different colors (from left to right: red, orange, yellow, light green, sky blue, dark blue, and purple); a white lower case f (the Facebook logo) appears on the front of the penultimate one (the one in dark blue).

Like others in ComposerBook land, I wrote the post simply because I was confronting the question myself.  I was going through something (part of a bigger story for me as I’ve struggled with blocks and with finishing “special” pieces for special occasions for several years now).  I reached out into the ether and found more perspective and commiseration (including from those I’ve barely met in person, or haven’t seen in many years) than I should have reasonably expected.  Social media, as it’s slowly morphed and grown up and changed, has guided our online behaviors as well.  This was a normal day online in 2017, yet wouldn’t have been possible even in the FB of 2009, when it was five years old.  For all the aggravation Facebook can cause, and I’m not stepping anywhere near the global/political issues that are coming into focus here, I can see that my relationship to this community of my colleagues is partially facilitated by the daily feed.  If I were pressed about it, I’d say: yes, I’m glad it’s around.

For all the aggravation Facebook can cause, I’m glad it’s around.

In the end, did I find an answer for myself?  No.  I don’t know if the pieces I truly want to be good really are good simply because that’s what I want.  However, I know that for me it’s not about what others like or don’t about it.  I definitely am okay with holding the outsider opinion on a piece of my own (and yes, many of us certainly have), whether it’s thumbs up or thumbs down.  I like the Mies van der Rohe line, “I don’t want to be interesting, I want to be good.” It fits my temperament and ideas about why I should do this and not some other thing with all the remaining solitary-ish days of my life.  Best, though, is yet another category.  If we really only have one best piece, or moment, or gesture, or note in our whole lives, then the likelihood of us writing it today is low.   How relaxing—what a relief!  I’ll do as well as I can today and try (and fail) not to obsess too much about it. Then I’ll just click right here and see what’s new on Netflix…

Sean Shepherd, an occasional contributor to New Music Box since 2006, is currently in deadline/work-trance mode on a piece for the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

The Art of Doubting Myself

out of your head

Image by siamonumeri, via Flickr.

I’m a terrible composer. I have almost no idea what I’m doing when it comes to music, my ideas aren’t very original or interesting, and, furthermore, I’m probably too lazy to actually do anything about it. Oh, that one quadruple stop I wrote isn’t possible on viola? I should have known that. But why should I be worrying about quadruple stops when I don’t even have the Well-Tempered Clavier memorized? My friends say they like my stuff, but they’re my friends. But I am getting a lot of performances. That can’t only be because I’m friendly and pretty good at networking, can it? CAN IT?

The previous paragraph is brought to you—as it is brought to me at least once a day—by my brain. Sometimes we don’t have the best relationship. I mean, it allows me to perceive and often enjoy the world around me, and that’s pretty cool, but it’s also been through depression, and sometimes gets into paranoid spirals of self-doubt and rather intense feelings of worthlessness. Disclaimer to the previous sentence: I’m fine, therapy plus SSRIs plus friends with good taste in beer have worked for me, don’t worry. I’m not really interested in delving into my own emotional health here, but what I am interested in is how both emotional health and perceived social or career status affects music making. Please do write comments on this one—I’d love to hear what other artists deal with in this regard. Maybe to give myself a bit more assurance that everyone else deals with this, too.

The thing that usually triggers the opening paragraph in my head is artistic struggle. When a hole in my knowledge gets exposed (for instance, “what do you mean you don’t know Mozart Piano Concerto K. 2,714,530?” or, conversely, “what do you mean you don’t know early Animal Collective?”), when I hit something like writer’s block, or when something I feel strongly about fails to elicit any reaction from anyone, it can often translate to feelings of inadequacy as a composer.

I figure this is something that everyone deals with to some extent. I recently asked a friend whose career star has risen rapidly over the last few years if the constant praise and unsolicited invitations to make music have allayed any of these anxieties, and his response was a basic “hell no,” and that he didn’t think they’d ever go away. Even Bernstein, at the height of his career, constantly sought reassurance about his music.

For me, the solution is to focus on myself instead of others. Not in a self-aggrandizing way, but in a positive and productive way. Focus on your strengths. Sure, work on your weaknesses, but realize that there are strengths there that have gotten you this far and use them. Here’s an example from outside of music that might make this approach clearer: my mom used to beat herself up over not being a better singles tennis player. She was, at the same time, a really phenomenal doubles player. It took a particularly stressful singles loss to make her realize it, but when a friend said, “yeah you lost, but it’s not what you’re best at,” it kicked off a new focus on doubles, and way, way, way more wins.

How does this translate to music? In my own practice, when I start to write incredibly complex music or very rich post-Romantic chorale textures, I feel like it often comes up short. I’m not saying I don’t push myself to improve those skills, but that when my perceived lack of ability starts to get me down, I focus on things I know I’m good at to get back on track. I think I’ve got a knack for syncopated, hooky rhythms, color/texture, counterpoint, and form. The other holes might or might not be real, and sometimes they get overblown when comparing myself to others, but spending all day worrying about them isn’t very helpful.
There’s an upside anyway: it means there’s always something to learn, explore, or improve. And we do have to be practical: if I’m recording something for commercial release, I’m going to hire a producer and recording engineer, because they have skills that I don’t. Those people aren’t the composer that I am. We both put in our best, we get something better than any of us could have made alone. That’s not something to get down about.

That said, the writer’s block issue sometimes triggers a deeper emotional response, similar to what I believe is called imposter syndrome. At the moment I’ve got a great beginning to a piece for orchestra, a climax and ending I feel awesome about, and no idea how to connect them. The formal tricks (invert this, expand that) all feel forced and trite, or—worse—boring. Nothing I’ve improvised, be it based on earlier material or free, seems to fit. At the moment, every failed attempt to fill in the gap is making me feel inadequate as a composer. After all, if I can’t be convinced by something I’ve written, how can I expect anyone else to be? Writing music is literally my job, and right now I’d fire myself.

My normal solution for writing in those situations is to take a break from the piece for a while and let it percolate in my subconscious. I’ll do something—anything—else, sometimes for a few minutes, sometimes for a few weeks, and come back to it when I get struck by an idea while driving. If that never happens, maybe I can use those things I wrote and feel good about in a future piece.

My normal solution for feeling like a capable composer in those situations has more to do with considering how differently people can react to the same music. A few years ago I put on a concert of some of my piano music in New York. I’d call the show a success—the performance was good, and the audience seemed into the music. A friend from college, a photographer who also DJs, came out to listen. He had had no experience with modernist/post-modern concert music and admitted that, while he was glad to come out and support me, the music did nothing for him. He didn’t feel connected to it or moved in any way. This bothered me at the time. Not because one person didn’t like it, but because I’d poured a lot of myself into writing something meaningful, and it had completely failed to connect. The semi-logical conclusion my brain leapt to was that I must not be a worthwhile musician, and am therefore not a worthwhile person.

That thought, have it though I may, is outright wrong. My friend pulled in an analogy from photography that I found quite meaningful to explain his take on such an idea. Basically, there are about a billion photographers making art out there. No one is going to connect with everyone. The only approach is to shoot what works for you. If it resonates with someone else, that’s great. If it resonates with a lot of someone elses, that’s great too. If not, it’s not because of you, it’s because their taste and vision and ideas and artistic needs don’t match yours.

Viewing our art like this makes the whole question of success in connecting with others a non-issue. After all, saying that everyone’s taste and ideas should match yours isn’t that far off from the thinking behind fascism, racism, and all kinds of other rather negative –isms.

Thinking about this is what actually gives me some measure of comfort that I don’t suck. If I throw people’s reactions out the window and write music that both satisfies and excites me, and is music that I want to hear, and I’m being honest about all of that, then I’m good. Much like I argued in my earlier article on musical experience, what works for me is right for me. Anything beyond that is a lucky perk, and anything less than that can be worked on until it’s up to snuff in my musical worldview.
I’m not sure that’ll make anxieties go away, but one thing therapists seem to agree on is that having something tangible to focus on instead of your own doubts is very helpful. Shutting up about all the other stuff and paying attention to what note comes next often does the trick for me.

Defining Musical Quality

match stack
I will devote my entire final post here at NewMusicBox to quality. I’ve defined this word several ways. In my first article, I called it “an urgency and an intensity, a compositional concern and a social language to address it.” In the next post, urgency turned into need. I wrote about how need comes from within, not from outside pressure—a necessary thing can supply its own reasons for being. Artworks of necessity thrive in non-coercive social situations. In my second and third articles, I spelled out ways in which the neoliberal culture of coercive production changed new music. By defining quality against neoliberal labor conditions, I gave the word a social dimension. I cannot separate quality judgment from social critique. In this article, I want to expand quality into agency—a thing can only advocate for itself if it can speak.

I’ve spoken to many people who have different words for quality. Of course, I encountered quite a few people who considered displays of technique with form, pitch, or other musical parameters as indicators of quality. This type of quality judgment, though, gauges the education of a composer along some pre-written path. If I judge quality simply by technique, I tend to leave the weird, strange, or novel works by the wayside. A friend of mine said that quality music gives him the “ability to sense that the music isn’t an exercise.” He meant something more complicated than a technical evaluation—some pieces allow him to believe that the music exists for non-technical reasons. Many people I’ve talked to about this project name quality “seriousness” or “depth”—I repurpose these ideas for myself as “heaviness” or “gravity.” Some equate quality with arthood. Arthood, in this case, transcends music, it exceeds it—“that’s not just music, that’s a work of art.” Some people associated quality with a sense of disembodiment, with the feeling of being part of (or under the control of) something bigger than one’s body.

I associate quality with “heaviness.” I wish my music could somehow contain only barometric pressure, perhaps even less. I want to feel my music first in the heaviness of the air. I can’t measure this heaviness, but I can feel it. Quality music makes the air heavy. When I feel this weight, I don’t associate it with a physical quantity. Instead, I find myself face to face with some enormous thing, some collective project that exceeds my relationship to it. It’s huge—I sense its gravity.

Truly, music is “bigger” than the people who make it; it contains more mass. Pieces of music belong to storms of material—possibilities, concepts, notes, institutions, people, chairs, bodies, bows, strings, noises. I like to think that I act upon this material inasmuch as this material acts upon me. Bruno Latour’s Actor-Network Theory or Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter both describe similar whirlwinds of capable objects, in which people (and our own internal assemblages of objects) participate. If I trick my brain a little, I can convince myself that out of music’s “big-ness,” parts of it—parts that aren’t even human—can act. I feel the heaviness of the air when giant globs of matter accrete, squish together, and move things with their gravity.

If the gravity metaphor feels unsatisfying, the “gaze” might be a nice alternative. If I listen to music and sense that a chaotic pile of nonhuman things somehow acts in concert, I have a very strange reaction. The subject-object relationship switches, I become an object to a process. Jacques Lacan calls this sensation “the gaze.” Instead of the heaviness of gravity, I feel the weight of something’s imposing stare.

Both gravity and gaze depend on the transition between a pile of stuff and a thing. Like many others before me, I call this process “emergence.” I like Elizabeth Barnes’s definition of emergence in her essay “Emergence and Fundamentality.” Paraphrasing, her emergent thing has two qualities. An emergent thing is “dependent”—music relies on an enormous quantity of parts and exists as long as these parts persist. An emergent thing is also “fundamental”—some music adds up to more than the sum of its parts. One can’t take music and break it down into a determining set of pieces.

To my ears, quality music emerges out of its context and becomes its own thing. It acquires some strange autonomy from its circumstances. I attribute quality to the sense of this transformation, to music’s tearing of its own constitutive fabric. I associate quality with the gravity consolidating musical goo into identity, or the pressure of being stared at (or through) by a piece of music. Take Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example—this thing exists almost in another dimension. It’s beyond music, beyond even being a cultural artifact. Timothy Morton might call it a “hyperobject”—a thing so huge that it exceeds our ability to really think about it. However, I’ve definitely experienced it, or at least a fragment or a flash of it during a committed performance.
Now, I don’t put forward this wacky ontology just because it allows me to judge things. Thinking this way raises some serious implications for the practice of music. First, it breaks the causal stream from composer to performer to music. Instead of composing or playing or listening to music, I participate in its preconditions. If musicians think of music as its own thing, like a ghost waiting for summoning, they change their orientation towards it. Sure, the composer and performer and listener roles can still exist, but they also drift towards each other—they require each other more. Everyone becomes a different type of listener equipped with different instruments of hearing. They can fail together. I don’t feel the heaviness of the air often. Many times, I don’t sense that a piece includes almost anything. If this is the case, then there must exist some conditions that prohibit music’s emergence.

Composers can create hostile work environments for music. Instead of writing music badly, composers can facilitate bad situations. For example, a composer may write a work riddled with notational mistakes or ambiguities. Such problems don’t destroy the music, they just make a performance situation harder or an informed audience member cynical. Deeper problems could include a lack of structural consideration, an overdisplay of musical rhetoric, whatever—they exist as problems only insofar as they stifle a performer’s comprehension or an audience member’s belief. Performers, in turn, can make a well-written piece into a bad piece. (They can also beat the odds and enable a poorly written piece to come into itself). Hierarchies dissolve into a statistical wash. One never ruins music on one’s own, but one can make things difficult. Quality means something entirely relational—everyone, at every stage, is implicated.

Larger, slow-moving institutional organisms affect this process as well. As I discussed at length in weeks two and three, new music’s infrastructure makes quality harder—it encourages the overproduction of works and performances. Neoliberal institutions require fungible commodities; music must assume an inert state. Music built to serve an economic end rarely prioritizes its own immanent needs. Performances that reify scores (build products) make simulacra. These performances signify themselves—they are empty, they do not add anything. Consequently, there is less stuff, fewer resources from which a music-thing might build itself. Institutions, compositions, and performances aren’t just filters, though—an outstanding and sensitive performance might introduce new stuff, dimension-crossing stuff, stuff in service to a collective project. A quality composition, in my eyes, unleashes a concentrated stream of stuff, where squashed molecules bash against their limits and into one another. An empowering institutional framework gives people time to make stuff together, to curate intentional stuff, to make their stuff public. A quality listener witnesses and testifies to the remaining stuff of music, the stuff that exceeds composers and performers. These forces spill against and over each other. There is no good or bad, only different types and degrees of empowerment and agency along a long and complex stream of actors.

Quality means empowerment. One doesn’t need to buy my musical ontology to believe that a piece of music is bigger than one’s own actions. Even the most hermetic composers (and I’m certainly among this crowd) have to own up to the fact that their music exceeds the capabilities of their solitary hands. By admitting this one, simple reality, composers and performers and institutions and listeners might realize that the entire community needs to find ways to empower its members. The community should start with music itself and move outwards. If the new music community recognizes the agency of music, its ability to affect people, places, and things, then it might account for just how much has been lost. Music is charged matter. It requires care.

I’d like to thank the dozens of people I interacted with over the course of this project. I won’t mention any of you by name (though I wouldn’t mind doing so!), but please know that the collectivity of our efforts over the past few weeks literally provided me with the meaning of quality.

New Music’s Quality Problem

quality control

Photo courtesy of Eduardo on Flickr.

Whenever I come across a new music community post about the so-called “audience problem,” I think to myself: isn’t that a little entitled? What makes composers feel so deserving of an audience? It seems like the entire audience problem debate stubbornly looks outward, asking questions about marketing, “outreach,” and accessibility, all the while carefully avoiding some seriously necessary self-examination. Instead of an audience problem, I think new music has a quality problem.

I know this word might seem a little old-fashioned, conservative even, but its disappearance has left some still-unrepaired holes in our language. I’m not arguing for any sort of “objective quality”—it’s hard to defend black-and-white binaries after postmodernism. (Even those binaries one might put at either pole of a continuum.) Likewise, it’s fairly uncontroversial to say that quality is culturally constructed, and that its indices might change from generation to generation. However, though postmodernism afforded some suppleness and relativity, its norms were quietly and insidiously eroded by late-stage (or neoliberal) capitalism’s very objectivity-oriented standards.

The present antimodernism, at its outset so strongly critical of binary logic, has started to look an awful lot like its structuralist predecessor. Instead of good/bad, present mores yield to profitable/unprofitable or popular/unpopular.* Worse, because new music culture thinks it has left such binaries behind, it lost those rich discursive weirdnesses one finds orbiting around absolutes in an inabsolute world. Defensively, it lost the words to talk about quality and then, sadly, the energy to conceptualize its increasing fuzziness.

I hear the phrase “it’s a matter of taste” quite a lot. What a prohibitive position—it sounds like “our differences in perception present irreconcilable differences and we should stop talking now.” “Taste” and “quality” strike me as entirely different forces. Taste brings into the room all those alliances one makes with the world, the ways one forms an identity. Of course, I don’t really have control over my taste—I inherit it generationally, biologically, culturally, from role models and archetypes, and from social and political modes of control. I can, however, establish some critical distance between myself and my taste. If I can’t, if I am unable to separate myself at least a little bit from the things I identify with, then I must live in some kind of agenciless misread-Foucauldian nightmare. Quality means something different, something exactly about the agency one exercises between oneself and one’s identity. I can think of few things more subjective than this space, but at the same time I think it’s possible and important to talk about it.

Another prohibitive conversational barrier comes in directives to “focus on one’s own work instead of interfering in others’.” I find this particular rhetorical strategy absolutely incompatible with the way most composers justify their existence. If I tell myself, constantly, that my musical work is incredibly and unquestionably socially important, why is its content inconsequential? Like “it’s a matter of taste,” this also invites a conversation about agency. I believe that music wields its own power, separate from the human agency of its composition and performance. Because music affects people, albeit invisibly, the new music community must find a way to meaningfully address the responsibilities of composition, performance, and curation. As I see it now, the greater community I cherish lacks any mechanism of accountability—it proliferates discourse, tirelessly circulating around the unfalsifiable idea that subjectivity somehow means incommunicability.

Quality is an urgency and an intensity, a compositional concern and a social language to address it. Surely we can speak of musical necessity without reverting to old and bankrupt black-and-white. I will write three more posts for NewMusicBox, increasingly attempting to open doors to a “discourse of quality”—a mode of talking, abstractly, weirdly, about our musical agencies. Next week I will address elitism, power, and the broader structural impediments to music-world conversation.

* WQXR’s report entitled “In a Rough Job Market, More Conservatories Stress Business Skills” reveals this type of objective thinking better than almost anything. David Cutler, University of South Carolina Professor of Musical Entrepreneurship, proposes the following:

“[…P]erhaps part of the recital requirement might be: you need to get 200 people there to get an A, or 150 people there to get a B.” Students might also be graded on how they can rethink the presentation to include multimedia or other visual elements.

Note the quiet reintroduction of objective metrics, posed in the guise of postmodern flexibility, when it comes to evaluating art.


Marek Poliks

Marek Poliks

Marek Poliks (b.1989) writes chamber music at Harvard University, where he works towards a PhD. His music mines for expressivity in threadbare spaces, exhausted resources, and absolute vacuum. He studies with Chaya Czernowin, but recent primary teachers also include John Luther Adams, Rick Burkhardt, Roger Reynolds, Steven Takasugi, Hans Tutschku, and Amnon Wolman. Prior to this, he undertook the majority of his education with his mentor Josh Levine at Oberlin College and Conservatory.

Effortless Music

Over the past seven days I have been to five concerts—a lot more than usual for me—and my head is chock full of sounds. I have heard cellos, bass clarinets, recorders of every conceivable size and shape (oh, how I love the contrabass recorder!!), ensembles great and small, not to mention loops employed for the Forces of Good.

Normally when I am up to my ears in composing a new work, I curb my concert-going activities substantially, simply to protect the music in my head from being drowned out by external forces. However, the piece I’m currently working on has been a long time in the making, and lately it has felt rather refreshing to disconnect from my internal sound world for a little while to experience some outsider sounds.

Hearing this much music in a relatively short span of time reminds me that the music I find to be the most satisfying possesses an effortless quality that I’ve never been able to completely pin down. It’s as if the music spontaneously erupted into being without any difficulty whatsoever, like a friend you go on a mountain hike with, whose white t-shirt is as perfectly clean and uncrumpled at the end of the day as it was when you began (how do they do that??).

It’s not about genre or instrumentation—because I hear this quality in many types of music—or harmonic or rhythmic content, and not even directly about technique. Obviously it is about the artist making the work, but it has nothing to do with external personality traits. In addition, I don’t believe that effortless music can be purposefully created, to continue down the path of Dan’s idea that you can’t “try” to be spontaneous.

I have the feeling that this illusory sensation about a musical experience is actually the best possible thing one can hope for—that I am hearing the composer’s real voice. When someone is creating music that is free of obvious external influences, expectations, and (perhaps especially) the composer’s own ego, the result is a staggeringly amazing window into that individual’s core being. Pure and uncomplicated, even if the music itself wears complicated clothing. Needless to say, that ain’t easy! But I am so heartened when I find it, and I think that if someone (anyone!) has that experience with your music, then you can rest assured that you are doing something right.