Tag: research

In Search of Robert Palmer

A black and white photo of a Caucasian man with his left arm bent beside his head

It was after midnight, the recording session was in two days, and the AirBnB I had booked wasn’t nearly as close to downtown as it had promised. The last time I came to Ithaca, New York, to look through Robert Palmer’s archive—months ago, just before my first Palmer recording session—I stayed in a nondescript house just next to the Cornell campus, its walls breathing generations of college students. I had easily grabbed my key out of an unlocked mailbox in the entryway.


This place, however, was somewhere in the fields surrounding Ithaca, farm country that betrays nothing of the fabled town just a few miles down the road. I stumbled in the dark trying to find the host’s key using my iPhone flashlight. It wasn’t the first time I wondered what the hell I was doing out here, hours from New York City, upsetting my schedule, eating Burger King and keeping the receipts—for what? To see if such-and-such note had a sharp next to it? Well, yes. And to snoop through his letters.

By 1 a.m. I was in bed, absorbing the soft intrusiveness I always feel when staying in an AirBnB, when I heard a pounding at the door. I thought it might be my imagination until it came again. Pounding. This is how I die, I thought. For Robert Palmer. The pounding came again. I crept to the door. “Yes?” Am I ready to die in Ithaca? A man’s voice answered, saying I had left my rental car’s lights on. I went outside to meet him. He held a can of Bud Light Lime-A-Rita. The car was dark. “I guess they go off automatic,” he said.

Perpetually an underdog, most biographical summaries written during his lifetime acknowledge how seldom Palmer’s music ever saw performance even then, and yet I’m one of a motley crew of artists who have been drawn to his work.

Robert Palmer lived between 1915-2010, mostly in upstate New York. He produced more than 90 works, was a Guggenheim Fellow, a Fulbright Scholar, a National Endowment for the Arts grant recipient, and the first American composer published by Edition Peters, the publisher later associated with John Cage and the most experimental of modernists. His star rose in the 1940s and ’50s after a string of energetic, introspective, “metaphysical” works, as Aaron Copland called them, driven by a strong emotional current and built with complex counterpoint and layers of tight rhythmic structures. Hindemith meets Bartók meets Brahms meets Lou Harrison meets…

The relative obscurity that followed his promising debut is as puzzling as one wishes to make it. It could be as simple as his reputation soaring just as the focus of contemporary music shifted toward the seductions of serialism, chance, and minimalism, with Palmer eclipsed and his listeners fractured amidst a world of new curiosities. He might never have been as famous as mid-century tonalists such as William Schuman, David Diamond, or Roy Harris (a brief teacher of his), but they all suffered relatively the same fate.

Perpetually an underdog, most biographical summaries written during his lifetime acknowledge how seldom Palmer’s music ever saw performance even then, and yet I’m one of a motley crew of artists who, since the late 1930s, have been drawn to his work. Pianist John Kirkpatrick, himself skyrocketing to fame after premiering Charles Ives’s Concord Sonata, became a kind of pen pal, coach, and the first real ambassador of Palmer’s music, to whom the earliest scores are all dedicated. Palmer, at the time, was an Eastman School of Music graduate and grocery store clerk.  Copland included him on his famed 1948 list of seven composers who were “the best we have to offer,” which also included Cage, Lukas Foss, and Leonard Bernstein. Elliott Carter called Palmer’s music “firm and definite; its dissonance resembles that of younger Europeans whom we never hear in this country,” while describing its “impressive seriousness and great musicality.” Yvar Mikhashoff, a pianist equally at home with the pioneers of American music as he was with David Lang, recorded and commissioned Palmer, while Palmer’s piano music was also performed by classically-bent virtuosos like William Kapell and Claudio Arrau. Julius Eastman played Palmer’s Three Epigrams on his Town Hall debut (the piece was mentioned in the resulting New York Times review) and later approached pianist Joseph Kubera to play his Sonata for Two Pianos. “Robert Palmer’s the man,” Joe remembers him saying. Kyle Gann blogged about him in 2014, and one year later Steven Stucky wrote a memorial in his honor on this very website.

I first heard Robert Palmer’s music as a teenager on a scratchy live recording … I would dance to this piece in front of the mirror as if singing into a hairbrush.

I first heard Robert Palmer’s music as a teenager on a scratchy live recording by the aforementioned William Kapell, the first pianist I ever fell in love with, playing the Toccata Ostinato (1945). I would dance to this piece in front of the mirror as if singing into a hairbrush. Despite the poor sound quality, the subdued applause, and an electrifying but imperfect performance that ended with an exasperated cluster across the keys—and how I hoped that the score called for such an ending (it doesn’t)—I was hooked. Long before finding a score required but a few clicks, I hunted for months, and when the music finally appeared in the mail, I already felt like a detective discovering clues. It turns out that Palmer had dedicated the piece to Kapell before the pianist’s tragic death in a plane crash. I later discovered that he played it perhaps only twice, including that recorded performance. It looked fiendish to play. I didn’t touch it for years.

When I decided to finally hunker down and learn the Toccata, it was to serve as an encore for an otherwise meditative recital program. People would approach me after the concert wanting to know nothing about the proper program, but only about Palmer, my encore. Realizing I had nothing to tell them, I started to scratch around for even the most basic information. So began the trip down the rabbit hole that found me, years later, in a bed somewhere outside Ithaca as a stranger pounded on the front door with a Lime-a-Rita.

I scoured the internet for Palmer paraphernalia. He wasn’t unpublished, after all, and several scores remain in print by Presser, Peer, and Peters. But many scores—including some of the most interesting—are out of print or were never published at all. I later discovered in his letters that Palmer attempted to publish his sublime Second Piano Sonata, composed in the mid-1940s, as late as the 1980s, with no luck. It’s a masterpiece, and as of this writing remains in his own hand in the Cornell manuscripts archive.

I ordered whatever works I could find online and began having others scanned from Cornell. Each one seemed like a revelation, some incredible secret that I had personally discovered (of course I hadn’t) and was eager to share. These pieces, as I saw it, should have been part of the core American piano repertory. The music was as difficult as it was exhilarating to play. I would fall back from the piano after certain pieces laughing, sweating and exhausted, like stumbling off of a roller coaster. After others I’d sit in stunned silence, my eyes welling and my heart aching. I could already tell that the payoff in learning this music would be worth the work, and started programming Palmer’s music whenever I could. Realizing that so little had been recorded, I also started thinking about making an album, though like most of my big ideas, I didn’t know how or where to start.

In 2015 I visited Yale to sift through Palmer’s materials in John Kirkpatrick’s archive. In his letters to Kirkpatrick, I met a man who, sentence to sentence, swung from insecure to confident, pious to prideful, who would confess his demons as much as guard them. He scorned allies, Copland and Carter in particular, for their so-called “decadent” tastes, all too ready to burn important bridges on artistic principle. He casually mentioned in one letter that the military had permanently disqualified him from service “for psychological reasons,” and in the same breath reported that this would free him up creatively for the coming year. That, along with his vague, coded language about intimacy and a kind of crippling shyness has led at least one researcher (in a book about Kirkpatrick, as it were) to queer Palmer. Looking through the same letters and many more, and being quite familiar with the closet myself, I’m not totally convinced. Still, it came as a relief when Palmer’s stoic facade, which seemed so unlike his heart-on-his-sleeve, red-blooded music, began to melt. Suddenly the music, and my attraction to it (and to him), made a little more sense.

But I still couldn’t figure him out nor ascertain why his work vanished from concert halls. Should Palmer have better networked his way into history? Is that a thing? Or was he just happy enough teaching at Cornell, in the country’s first PhD composition program, which he indeed had created? It’s a life that satisfied him, after all—“I liked teaching!” he said in a late interview—even if it was a life that may not have satisfied others. Copland wrote, “Too much of [Palmer’s] energy has gone into his teaching… but teaching is a familiar disease of the American composer.”

Or perhaps he was just too scattered and immature for the limelight, destined “to be permanently a child,” as he phrased it in one anguished letter. (This, too, has been read as a code for queer.) Kirkpatrick, in a conspicuously missing letter, had apparently challenged him on his decision to marry so young. Palmer wrote back, “I hope you will be more specific in exactly how… I am young for 24. It will help me to help myself, and I am the only one who can help.” For Palmer, self-betterment and musical perfection seemed to go hand in hand. He did mature and did change, at least stylistically, perhaps to the disappointment of others. Many, including myself, have sensed that the breathless momentum and passion of his music, the quality that attracted such early attention, began to cool as he, well… grew up. I read several letters in which performers pined for the old days when Palmer’s music came out as a flood of notes, impulsive and intense, with hardly a rest. Did he feel like he “overshared” in his earlier works, and thus distanced himself in later ones? Did he feel the intellectual heat from his contemporaries, a self-imposed pressure to “smarten up” music that, I assure you, was already tied in intellectual pretzels? Or did his style… simply change? We all change! And sometimes audiences drift.

Eventually I approached a record label about Robert Palmer. There was no strategy to my label choice; I simply knew the name. They said yes, and I was elated. I filled out a grant application and the label applied for it on our behalf. We got the grant, and I was elated again. The label, however, also required a “sponsorship fee”—not unusual in classical music. I’d heard about this from other artists but naively thought it couldn’t possibly apply to my Palmer project. It did, and the grant funds didn’t even cover that cost, leaving me with less-than-zero to pay for the actual recording. Whenever anyone asked, I’d say the Palmer album was stalled. In truth, I considered it dead.

A couple years went by when one Sunday evening I volunteered to turn pages for Joseph Kubera, now a friend, at a private New World Records pre-recording concert. Paul Tai, the director of the label, asked about the state of the Palmer project, which I had told him about in its earliest days. I explained the situation, knowing by now that New World would have been the perfect home for the album. “Ask them to release the project,” he suggested, regarding the original label. I laughed at the idea. They’d never go for that, I argued, and besides, the grant funds had surely expired. “Ask your granter to extend the deadline,” he suggested again. He made no promises, and it all seemed quite crazy, but also I had nothing to lose. I reached out and, to my astonishment, both the label and granter agreed to my requests. Once the coast was clear, New World took over. Legendary producer Judith Sherman signed on, and we would record at the American Academy of Arts and Letters with Steinway providing the pianos. My brilliant friend Daniel Johnson would write the liner notes, and in a perfect full-circle moment, Kubera agreed to play the Sonata for Two Pianos that Julius Eastman had once asked to play with him. He used Eastman’s score, his fingerings still penciled in. The album went from doomed to best-case scenario.

By summer 2018, I had the program learned for what would be the first of two recording sessions—the second taking place in the fall—and went to Ithaca to finally visit the Palmer archive.

Palmer materials

I hadn’t sat with Palmer’s actual papers since my visit to Yale three years earlier. It was worth the drive, the overnight stay, the upturned schedule, and the loss of practice time, because where else could I see that he wanted me to “slam [the] hell out of” that one chord in the First Piano Sonata (1939/40)?

slam the hell out of it

Where else could I see Ned Rorem’s West Village address scrawled on a program at the Tanglewood premiere of Peter Grimes?

Ned Rorem notes

Where else could I feverishly snap pictures of scores that exist, as of this writing, only in that archive, or see Palmer’s self-penned autobiography?

Palmer's self-penned autobiography

I slowly drove by what was once his humble home, where he had lived since moving to Ithaca in the early 1940s. I wondered if the people inside knew a composer once lived there, one of Copland’s “best we have to offer.”

Palmer's house

I met his old friends, folks who still called him Bob. “This guy’s recording Bob’s music!” said one of them to a co-worker. I met his daughter and son-in-law, and listened to their stories—like the time Palmer accidentally received a royalty check for the other, “Addicted to Love” Robert Palmer. He was furious, they said, but couldn’t have been surprised to see the royalties this other Palmer earned. Despite apparent urgings, the composer Robert Palmer resisted adding his middle name to separate himself from the pop star. “He hated his middle name,” his daughter told me, and I recalled seeing in the archive that Palmer had crossed a line through his middle name when editing an encyclopedia entry that included it, just as his Wikipedia entry currently does.

Palmer has remained to me throughout this process a kind of mystery, and I’ve tried to strike a balance between respectful and nosey when it comes to fleshing out the man.

A week later I was sitting at a grand piano on the darkened stage at the American Academy of Arts and Letters on the first morning of the first recording session of the first-ever album devoted solely to Palmer’s piano works. Judy’s voice came through a speaker a few feet from the piano. “Ready when you are!” It was a long way from dancing in front of the mirror to Toccata Ostinato.

RECORDING right here

Palmer has remained to me throughout this process a kind of mystery, and I’ve tried to strike a balance between respectful and nosey when it comes to fleshing out the man. When his daughter and son-in-law met me for smoothies after my first Cornell visit, I confessed that it felt funny talking to her after having spent the afternoon reading the passionate letters her father wrote her mother during their courtship, often marked by his paralyzing loneliness. When she alluded to her father being complicated, I didn’t ask for details, though I recently asked her over email about his favorite Christmas traditions, his favorite restaurant, his politics, his religious beliefs. Did he teach her piano?

But considering the many people I’ve prodded for memories, few say very much, maybe because Palmer himself didn’t say very much. “He was quiet till he got going,” clarified his son-in-law, “Then watch out.”

I regret not putting a few follow-up questions to composer Steve Stucky when we met one morning for breakfast to talk about Palmer, about a year before Stucky’s own untimely passing. I wish, just a couple of times, I’d asked, “What do you mean by that?”

I wish when I first heard Palmer’s music as a teenager that I had reached out, instead of functioning under the assumption that all composers were famous and needed no advocates, let alone fan mail. And I’d already learned Toccata Ostinato in 2010, the year Palmer passed away. He had suffered a stroke and couldn’t speak, “but he could still play the piano,” I was told. In my imagination I might have found a way to tell him, in those last years, that I loved his music and would find a way to share it. He might have liked that.

Palmer’s last big project was a Concerto for Two Pianos, Double Strings, Double Percussion and Symphonic Brass. Despite National Endowment for the Arts funding and dreams of a Pulitzer, the project was abandoned in a stack of sketches. But I remember staring at those numbered pages, black with pencil—even a stage scheme—thinking: He’s the only one who knew what this all sounded like.

Palmer Concerto

Part of my impulse to record Palmer’s work, particularly as the new music community challenges itself, rightly, to gaze beyond the white male composer archetype (of which Palmer certainly qualifies) is because the life of Palmer, and fate of Palmer, and the puzzling, inscrutable, what-happened-ness of Palmer, is something every creative person I know wrestles with every day. We rage against our work vanishing in the face of indifference, but mostly feel our way in the dark, finding our AirBnB keys with an iPhone flashlight in the middle of nowhere. Palmer’s story would be a cautionary tale if only we knew what we were cautioning against. Meanwhile, I’m hard-pressed to think of a composer who lived as strongly by his own creative convictions.

The life of Palmer, and fate of Palmer, and the puzzling, inscrutable, what-happened-ness of Palmer, is something every creative person I know wrestles with every day. We rage against our work vanishing in the face of indifference.

Whether our work is well established, gaining attention, facing oblivion, or long forgotten, we in the new music community find ourselves adrift in the same capricious tide of history. Part of our shared role in this community is to show up however we can for each other—to listen, perform, share—even as we all see and do things so differently. I look at Palmer’s life and work and am reminded that an artist’s greatest, and maybe only, power comes in giving shape to the fire inside them and tossing that work, over and over, into the void of the future. Maybe someone will someday be perfectly positioned to catch it. Or maybe not. Maybe the work will spin into the orbit of concert programming, or land on a recording for posterity, or wait for discovery in an archive. Or maybe not. People may listen to my Palmer album—perhaps some teenager will dance to it in front of their mirror like I once did to Kapell—and maybe some of the pieces, still in manuscript, will finally be published. Or maybe not. It could all—even this article—sail completely under the radar, as his work has for so long.

But just as Palmer created work nevertheless, we create work nevertheless—all of us giving shape to that fire inside us. And this act of creation, this calling, this need that exists in the present, far outweighs the promise of our work’s hypothetical future. Showing up, listening, connecting and realizing how alike and fragile we all are, is at least one way we can honor our shared humanity as artists, especially when our lives can feel so isolated, and like one unreasonable creative act after another. I spent more than a decade searching for Robert Palmer and made an album of his music when no one asked for it. But in my mind, I didn’t have a choice. I couldn’t imagine being the only one who knew what this all sounded like.

Robert Palmer: Piano Music is available now on New World Records.

Advice from Strangers: Finding Your Own Strangers

bon voyage

Illustration by Anouk Moulliet

Advice from Strangers explores shared challenges in the industries of new music and technology. This is the final column in the series.

A few months ago, I set out to explore areas of the software development experience whose depths, I felt, were in need of plumbing.

The project began with a questionnaire, ate its way through at least 500 Post-its, inspired a few unexpected interviews, and finally found its voice on this site about new music.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Advice from Strangers was not the overlap between tech and new music (which was, after all, its impetus), but discovering that the process of researching and writing exemplified the themes discussed within the series: creative growth, community building, trust, collaboration and resource management.

There are also other challenges worth exploring. How do we document and/or (an)notate our work so that it is usable by others? How do we make smart technology decisions in the face of cost and ongoing obsolescence? How do we support ourselves financially while starting a new venture? Furthermore, the juicy juxtaposition isn’t limited to new music and tech; I’d venture to say we could look at any two creative fields and find advice (and even solace) from across the divide.

So: How to harness this delightfully eye-opening and joyfully serendipitous experience? It can be yours in seven easy steps:

  1. Choose a field. Starting with friends, find a few people you respect who work (or play) in an industry that is not your own. (It helps to pick something you find interesting.)
  1. Identify the challenges. Ask them what their main challenges are in their work, interpersonal or otherwise. This is the backbone of your questionnaire.
  1. Prepare a questionnaire. When you start to see themes surfacing, use the themes to write a questionnaire. (Here’s mine—Gmail access required.) In the questionnaire, describe the challenges and ask people how they handle each issue. You may be able to use the same questionnaire for both the industry you’ve chosen and your own industry; if you need to, make a copy and tailor the language to fit the audience. Use quotes or examples to clarify the questions as needed.
  1. Find strangers. Share the questionnaire on Facebook, Twitter, and email. Ask your friends to share it with others in their industry. This is where the strangers are! If you’re lucky, you’ll get responses from around the world and from many different perspectives.
  1. Write down the main ideas. When you have at least 15 responses from each industry (the more the merrier), arm yourself with a sharpie and a stack of Post-its. You’ll need two colors, one for each industry. Start with the first question from your questionnaire. As you read through the responses, write down each independent concept on a Post-it. You may find there is more than one concept in a response. For example, Question: How do you successfully balance collaboration and privacy? Post-it #1: Sharing feels natural!, Post-it #2: I believe in sharing over hiding.
  1. Group the responses to discover themes. Stick those post-its on a wall and admire your glorious handiwork. Then, start looking for themes. Group together similar concepts until you end up with little Post-it clusters all over the wall. These are your answers! (Or starting points for further investigation.)
  1. Dig deep for meaningful information. Are any of the themes vague, or too theoretical to be actionable? Ask your strangers what they had in mind. Request anecdotes to explain a strategy or outlook. Follow up over coffee and a pastry. Worst case scenario: they draw a blank. Best case scenario: you get to know an interesting person who will continue to share his or her wisdom for years to come.

That’s it—your very own advice from strangers.

Should you choose to embark upon this Jules Vernian quest, you may find that looking at a familiar problem through an unfamiliar lens can cast rainbows on even the thorniest of challenges. Go talk to strangers, have a blast, and drop me a line if you turn up something interesting. Bon voyage!

DarwinTunes and Cultural Reductionism

In 2012, the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper with the thought-provoking title “Evolution of music by public choice.”[1] The research, led by Robert M. MacCallum, presented an environment—cleverly entitled DarwinTunes—in which a variety of short, looped sounds were capable of reproducibility, thus generating newer sounds based on certain qualities of the offspring’s progenitors. This so-called evolution was possible with help from almost 7,000 people who, on a five-point scale (“I can’t stand it” to “I love it”), had the fate of the sound loops in their hands. The samples that were most liked survived and had offspring, while the others died and had no further evolutional impact.[2] While MacCallum’s research might lead to an array of interesting implications from a scientific standpoint, it neglects a number of issues that I find significant if we wish to ponder the necessity for such a connection between music and evolution.

The DarwinTunes research claims that “a simple Darwinian process can produce music.”[3] However, it is quite difficult to say which specific samples have evolved more than others when all of them (older and newer generations) are in 4/4 and have the same tempo as well as the same pitch center for the most part—most perceivable changes are both textural and timbral in nature, while some also show a few melodic changes. In other words, if someone were to ask me whether a sound loop is more evolved than another one from the study’s pool of thousands of samples, I would not find myself capable of responding correctly. That is not to say, according to the experiment, that there was not indeed sonic change—undeniably, metamorphosis took place and produced different objective results over time.

In part, biological evolution precisely consists in the ability of a living entity to survive in an unfriendly context. In the case of DarwinTunes, those samples learned to pull through in a situation in which consumer choice set the rules for adaptability. In other words, we may speak of evolution solely within this experiment because the environment where the samples struggled was clearly defined. Music, nonetheless, is a complex cultural product that cannot be treated only as an art of sound organization—many other disciplines of human knowledge contribute a more satisfactory definition to music. Stating that DarwinTunes proves that “selection rapidly evolves music from noise,”[4] among other dubious claims, is problematic to say the least. Therefore, evolution via sexual intercourse might have influenced the development of the sound samples at stake, but such a conclusion cannot be extrapolated to the general evolution—for lack of a better term—of music.

On the other hand, media coverage of the DarwinTunes research may be perceived as a mirror of how our society generally interprets music. Rachel Ehrenberg from Science News writes: “Evolution makes noise into music […] Inspired in part by long-running experiments probing the evolution of bacteria, computational biologist Bob MacCallum and colleagues decided to see if pleasant music could evolve from a cacophonous mess when human listeners acted as the force of natural selection.”[5] Science also presents the study with the headline “Computer Program ‘Evolves’ Music from Noise.”[6] The Los Angeles Times introduces the topic from a slightly different perspective: “DarwinTunes software ‘evolves’ music without composers.” Later on, it goes into saying: “Composers, look to your laurels: A mere computer program can transform a racket of clangs, hums and beeps into a pleasing melody.”[7] Along the same lines, the BBC News headline says: “Music evolution: Is this the end of the composer?”[8] Moreover, the headline of The Sydney Morning Herald ironically claims “With DarwinTunes, who needs composers?” and ends up stating that “pleasant enough music had evolved out of the original noise, […] with chords, rhythms and rather repetitive tunes that would not be out of place in a modern pop song.”[9] mood:blog also announces that “starting with sine waves, MacCallum and Leroi used audience participation (a rating system) to shift the sounds until [they created] more pleasing rhythms and melodies.”[10] Even MacCallum and his colleagues ask themselves in the paper: “What makes the loops of later generations so much more pleasing? The aesthetic value of a given piece of music depends on many different features, such as consonance, rhythm, and melody.”[11]
Media coverage of DarwinTunes
A recurring idea that appears in the vast majority of such media coverage is pleasantness. The only piece of information I have been able to pinpoint that finds the results of the study a little odd is by Michael Scott Cuthbert, a professor at MIT. Cuthbert argues that “[the research] doesn’t give any information about why music sounded differently in the past, why people like different things today, or how music might evolve in the future.”[12] Indeed, it is quite fascinating that this generalized, implicit discourse about the pleasantness of music leads to the unquestioned belief that real musical evolution does exist beyond the study. One of the most explicit examples of this conviction comes from Mark Pagel, a professor of biology at the University of Reading:

We often think that the classic songs are the best and nothing can improve on them. This just shows you the outcome of this great, sorting power of cultural evolution because the Radio 2 listeners are listening to songs that are the survivors of an earlier era; they were the best of their generation and they get played over and over and over again because they were the forms that were the best at competing for our attention. When those songs that we listen to on Radio 2 were first produced in the 70s or in the 60s, there were tens of thousands of other songs at the same time that weren’t as good and we’ve forgotten about them.[13]

The level of blatant reductionism is alarming. I do not have the space to delve deeply into the many issues that Pagel raises, but we certainly should not forget that things are not this simple: Adorno, Benjamin, Finkielkraut, Flotzinger, Harvey, Luhmann, and even Marx (among many others!) have seriously studied music and other artistic disciplines from a variety of perspectives in order to shed some light on whether some aesthetic patterns are more culturally relevant than others. Perhaps one should be more careful before publicly sharing certain views.

A first, dual conclusion could be drawn from both the original paper and its press coverage: (1) more evolved music (I am not sure what this means yet) is more pleasant and (2) music and noise are clearly opposed entities—we might want to ask Hijokaidan, Borbetomagus, or Phil Julian what they think about this dichotomy.[14] To the researchers’ credit, it does seem though that humans have a tendency to search for a certain degree of pleasantness while listening to music, whether the music is noisy or not. When asked why he makes noise music, Lasse Marhaug responded: “Because I like it. I enjoy the sound of dense electronic overload, feedback, and distortion. I like how noise both offers a space to move around freely within, and a feeling that engulfs you. It pleases me both emotionally and intellectually.”[15] Kasper Toeplitz was asked the same question and wrote back: “Then into my life came Japanoise, and noise in general, and music was exciting again! The long developments (more architecture than ‘proper music’), the pure physicality of the sounds (and not their ‘function,’ as you have in rock, jazz, etc.), and the passion. […] It is also good to add that it is one of the purest expressions of beauty, this music. Or pure ugliness, maybe, which makes it beautiful.”[16] I suspect that when the DarwinTunes researchers claim to be able to evolve pleasing loops from noise, they are basing their use of the word “pleasing” on a very particular tradition that by no means is shared by the entirety of humanity. The lack of acknowledgement of their own cultural bias is highly problematic and may lead some readers to question the role of musical evolution even within the framework of the study.

Another shaky issue that MacCallum et al. attempt to answer is whether composers are needed in order to make music. They conclude that “the ability to download, manipulate, and distribute music via social-networking sites has democratized the production of music and may change the balance of [the specialist guilds of composers and performers]. In partitioning these selective forces, our analysis points the way to the future evolutionary dynamics of digital culture.”[17] If we were to understand the figure of the composer as a Romantic, subjective creative force, perhaps it would make sense to claim that the DarwinTunes samples evolved without the need of an independent mind at work deliberately trying to achieve a specific sounding goal. However, composition has changed tremendously since the times of Beethoven. John Cage had already introduced chance operations in the 1950s, thus removing himself from the final audible result. A close collaborator of Cage, David Tudor created his own homemade, complex electronic circuits in order to generate unpredictable sonic outcomes. Cornelius Cardew’s Treatise is arguably one of the most interpretable scores that has been written. Back in the 1990s, Jeremy Leach and John Fitch worked together on XComposer, an intelligent composition software that was capable of generating its own melodic lines. Peter Ablinger, with help from Winfried Ritsch and Thomas Musil, designed Deus Cantando, an installation piece in which a computer-controlled piano generates purely acoustical sounds that resemble a human voice speaking. What I mean to show with these examples is that highly processed compositional procedures—in which the final outcome is not necessarily known by the composer—have been common for decades. As a matter of fact, as long as we understand current compositional practices through the lens of contemporaneity, it would be quite easy to argue that MacCallum and his colleagues were the actual composers of DarwinTunes.

At least for now, I do not think composers are going anywhere.


1. Robert M. MacCallum et al., “Evolution of music by public choice,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109, 30 (2012): 12081–12086.

2 A compilation of these samples may be listened to on DarwinTunes’ Soundcloud site: https://soundcloud.com/uncoolbob/sets/darwintunes

3 MacCallum et al., 12085.

4 Ibid., 12081.

5 Rachel Ehrenberg, “Evolution makes noise into music,” Science News 182, 2 (July 2012): 12.

6 “Computer Program ‘Evolves’ Music From Noise,” Science, accessed September 3, 2014, http://news.sciencemag.org/2012/06/computer-program-evolves-music-noise

7 “DarwinTunes software ‘evolves’ music without composers,” Los Angeles Times, accessed September 3, 2014, http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jun/19/science/la-sci-music-evolution-20120619

8 “Music evolution: Is this the end of the composer?,” BBC News, accessed September 3, 2014, http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-18449939

9 “With DarwinTunes, who needs composers?,” The Sydney Morning Herald, accessed September 3, 2014, http://www.smh.com.au/digital-life/digital-life-news/with-darwintunes-who-needs-composers-20120619-20lch.html

10 “The Goods: DarwinTunes,” mood:blog, accessed September 3, 2014, http://blog.moodmedia.com/2012/07/the-goods-darwintunes/

11 MacCallum et al., 12082.

12 “Tunes without composers: music naturally evolves on DarwinTunes,” Discover, accessed September 3, 2014, http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/notrocketscience/2012/06/18/tunes-without-composers-music-naturally-evolves- on-darwintunes/

13 Armand Leroi, Darwin’s Tunes, podcast audio, August 8, 2012, http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01ljk56

14 These artists are known for their noisy, loud music.

15 Aaron Cassidy and Aaron Einbond, edit., Noise In And As Music (Huddersfield, United Kingdom: The University of Huddersfield Press, 2013): 129.

16 Ibid., 145-146.

17 MacCallum et al., 12086.


Joan Arnau Pàmies

Joan Arnau Pàmies

The music of Joan Arnau Pàmies (IPA: [d͡ʒu’ɑnəɾ’nɑu’pɑmiəs]) emerges from underlying issues related to text, sonic outcome, and the distinction between composition and interpretation as categorically different activities. Pàmies explores unconventional notational strategies in order to develop intricate formal processes. He is currently pursuing a D.M.A. at Northwestern University with Hans Thomalla as his doctoral advisor.

British Report on Commissioning Fees Inspires Concern

Money and music
Sound and Music, a national agency for new music in Britain, has conducted a survey of 466 composers designed to explore the economic challenges facing the creation of new work. The full report is available here, but an article today in The Guardian highlighted some of the study’s key findings:

• 66% of the 466 composers who responded stated they do not find commissions to be a significant proportion of their income. Given that the respondents had an average of 2.65 commissions in 2013 with an average fee per commission of £1,392 it’s easy to see why.
• 74% of composers received the same amount or more commissions in 2013 than in 2012 but only 15% earned more income. We also discovered that those who had been undertaking commissions for more than five years were likely to win more commissions but get paid less per commission.
• There are significant variances in income: the best paid 1% of composers received over 25% of all commission income captured by our survey. Once we excluded them from our sample, average annual commission income fell from £3,689 to £2,717.

Read the full report here.