Tag: society

Speak Now: Turning Around, Turning Away, and Turning Over

looking ahead


 “…when love stirs
it asks for nothing—but a world made safe
for truth, for beauty, for this tense blooming.”
— from Megan Levad’s “Volta”

We were generously gifted a bottle of Dom Perignon. My husband Bill and I saved it for something special and chilled it on November 8, to share with our friend Matt as we watched the election results roll in. Some time before midnight that night I posted a picture on social media with Matt holding out his hands as if to say “WHAT IS HAPPENING” and Bill giving our TV a middle finger. Our fancy champagne remains unopened, still waiting for something special.

I will turn 44 in June 2017.

And, I am worried.

In the last month, I’ve been turning around and looking back at some of my earliest social media posts to check in with my past worry levels. What an odd trip—a living memory lane sky-written on the internet, where we can watch ourselves stirring and seeking public feedback, placation, or applause, for the images and versions of ourselves we project online.

As a mom, composer, professor, and professional fun-haver, I reflect on the years before the prevalence of social media with some regret: I spent a significant amount of time torqued up and spazzing and saying not-nice things and cultivating a bubble of snark and worry around my being. I can also hear a spiky unsureness in the music I wrote in those days. It took me a handful of jangled years to choose to resign from my self-elected positions as Mayor, Treasurer, and Secretary of Worry Town. I was totally winning at leading Worry Town, because I could worry more and more awesomely than anyone else.

Here’s the thing about Worry Town: it is a reliable, comfortable, and seductive zip code in which to reside. Also, we are super great at inhabiting Worry Town. Staying in a place of worry is reliable because it feels real, it comes naturally, it’s not something we have to work at; Worry Town is reliable because there is an endless abundance of stuff to worry about, isn’t there?

Or is there?

A while back, I was both deep in the throes of a divorce and overworking myself in an effort to pile up tenure-worthy lines for my C.V. Those years were screamingly intense. The dopamine hits I got from posting silly, positive stuff online felt useful, but it was more probably a perceived protection from presenting myself online as being vulnerable in any way.

During the divorce we transitioned our son into spending nights at his dad’s new apartment slowly. We started with Wednesday nights. Our son did great, but the first night he spent across town I sat lumped on my kitchen floor for a good, long, bewildered sob-fest in Worry Town. The next Wednesday I cried again, watched a movie, ate my feelings via a giant pizza, and cried myself to sleep. The third Wednesday I enlisted help. I called my dear friend Cynthia and asked if I could come to her house and cry there; at least I’d be around other humans.

After she put her two young boys to bed, Cynthia brought out a bottle of bubbly and calmly gave me an amazing string of sentences: “Look, these Wednesdays are forever now. They just are. They feel like a shitty kind of special. Drink your champagne. These Wednesdays can also be a time for you to re-group, to make plans, to relax, to sleep, to do whatever you need for yourself so that you can be better for your boy. You can make these nights a good kind of special. They can be your special time to have and shape any way you want, or to get done what needs getting done, or to figure out what are the right things to do. You got this. Cheers.”

By simply being a kind, thoughtful, reasonable, and supportive ally, this gift from a trusted friend changed my life. That Wednesday night was a magical turning point; it helped me flip over, turn around, and turn away from Worry Town. It was also the birth of #ChampagneWednesday on my social media posts, and a cherished time I continue to preserve for specialness every week.

Now, in this new 2017, as our highly politicized climate is doing its thing, my worry muscles are re-strengthening. I am not sleeping well. I am sort-of, kind-of, almost writing music. November and December were a blur and if I don’t back the hell out of Worry Town soon, I run the risk of morphing into full-throttled Angry Kristy. Not only does no one want to be around Angry Kristy, she is blindingly not useful to anyone. Besides, the music Angry Kristy writes is stale and grey and over-tries to sound interesting.

#ChampagneWednesdays remain a vital part of my weeks, yet since November 9 I’ve not known what to do with my online presence. I have loved social media, but it’s a funky house of dissonance for me: this house is too big for its tiny plot of land within the vast expanse of Complain County. Throughout this last election season, social media sounded like metal-on-metal bending, growling, screaming through a vat of bloody bile. I felt I was watching our collective ego over-functioning so much that it was eating itself.

Using social media to initiate and cultivate conversations about the gender gap in the contemporary composition world felt productive and useful to me, and I hope it was useful for our artistic culture at large. Observing others’ successes and joys online is like a lovely, cool glass of water when pitted-out on a sticky Midwestern summer afternoon. When studies began appearing with data tracking people’s “happiness levels” in relation to their social media usage, I made a decision to be as positive as possible in my online posts. Great! Awesome? That made me feel better about what I was throwing online, but so what?

As I read this article on November 19, I felt buckets of tension release from my neck and shoulders. Consider these sentences: “(Social media) diverts your time and attention away from producing work that matters and toward convincing the world that you matter. The latter activity is seductive … but it can be disastrously counterproductive.” Yup, that resonates with me.

Things (seeds, herbs, trees, vegetables, clouds, babies), cannot grow if they are not given the proper environment in which they can thrive. This includes the delicious all-you-can-eat buffet of worry choices we cook up for ourselves; lay out a pretty menu and pick from it any time. In this new season we will undoubtedly have to turn and shift and adjust, and possibly relinquish, the current lives that we know for lives we don’t yet know. This has always been reality—the possibility our lives will be upended, uprooted, or undone at any moment or given time. What comes with this reality is a natural fear of the unknown. However, what we DO with that fear and worry is wholly up to us.

We may or may not see upending change with our country’s new leadership, and I’ve been sautéing some fresh daily specials for my worry buffet: I worry that it will be increasingly difficult for our young composers to make a living doing their art; I worry that our entire education system may be gutted; I worry that our society will, in fact, over-function so disastrously out of fear and division that we will be set back decades from our best social progresses into a total implosion of any modicum of civility; and I worry that our future may be a shitty kind of special.

When the worry creeps in, its antidote is patience.

Patience, I’ve found, is both a most difficult behavior to learn and sustain, as well as one of the most helpful behaviors we have. And social media teaches us, and fosters in us, the precise opposite of patience. Things take time. The best things—joy, love, music that moves people, social change, equality for all humans, getting one’s self out of a self-made snarkbubble—take careful, slow, meanderingly focused, craggy time.

To what must we devote our time in order to cultivate the environment in which goodness, justice, love, and gratitude can pervade our society? How can we, through our art and our interfacing with actual humans in person, be useful to these fellow humans and our culture of the arts?

I don’t yet know. I’m still working out ways I can be useful. But I do know that the time has arrived for me to turn away from the worry and turn over my social media presences to better uses of my time. Also, I believe that no matter the platform or interaction, by merely being allies—with patience, kindness, thoughtfulness, reasonableness, and support—for one another, and surrounding ourselves with other allies, we can change lives and change our culture.

Our time ahead may be an extremely tense blooming. It can also be an exciting and good kind of special if we commit to making it so. It can be our special time to figure out what it means to do what’s right for the world.

And we must answer the stirring of Love, by doing everything we can to turn ours into a world that is safe for truth and beauty to survive and thrive.

We’ve got this.


Kristin Kuster

Kristin Kuster

Coming and recent performances of Kristin Kuster’s music include works for the Baltimore and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestras, Colorado Music Festival Orchestra, Lisbon Summerfest Chamber Choir, Network for New Music, and multi-percussionist Joseph Gramley. Her chamber opera KEPT: a ghost story with a libretto by Megan Levad will premiere at the Virginia Arts Festival, in conjunction with the John Duffy Institute for New Opera, in May 2017. When Kristin is not working, you can find her on her deck with coffee. An associate professor of composition at the University of Michigan, Kristin lives in Ann Arbor with her awesome son and her badass husband.

Speak Now: It Is Time to Create

I don’t know about you, but ever since November 8 anxiety and fear have been choking my creative voice. I released my latest album in late October, and my plan was to begin work on the next album after a very short brain rest. However, I found myself staring listlessly at my computer during my scheduled creative time (after work and on the weekends), struggling to hear anything of interest or beauty in my head. All I could detect was the feedback of rage and despair—for myself as a woman and all other female-identifying people, and for my friends who experience hate because of the color of their skin or the texture of their hair—caused by the hate that is poisoning my country. In spite of the wall of pain that these feelings have put between my creative mind and my fingers, I have been reluctant to attempt to ignore them or block them out; I do not want to become an internal émigré while all that I love about my country is under active threat of destruction.

In this storm of anxiety I began to question the value of my weird, experimental synthesizer music. What change for good could I possibly effect with my distinctly non-political pieces? What could my small drop in the ocean of music do to help anyone at all?

At some point in late November—as I witnessed other artist-friends deal with similar creative blocks—a tiny voice in my head said, “Fight!” It took me a few days to understand the meaning of that message: Now, even now—especially now—artists need to persevere and create. We need to fight the feeling of hopelessness and uselessness if for no other reason than that’s what the enemy always intended to instill in us. People of hate do not want us to keep creating; they want to silence us, because a healthy, vibrant art-life is one of the key indicators of freedom. You want to subjugate the millions? A good step in that direction is to squash out the life of your country’s arts.

Right about now you are all probably thinking of Leonard Bernstein, who said, “This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.” Though these words have filled my Twitter feed to the point of oversaturation during the past couple of years, they nonetheless resonate in my head as I begin to learn how to remain in the world, engaging with the crisis, while also continuing to develop my creative voice. I think of all of the music and art that has “saved” me throughout my thirty-seven years, and I become thankful that those artists did not think to themselves, “Well, what use is my art anyway? Time to give up.” Don’t give up; someone out there needs your art. Don’t become an internal émigré; someone out there will need your signature, or your donation, or for you to be their witness.

My music will never be political. It will never directly change anyone’s mind about the importance of liberty and freedom. But it may provide comfort, or inspiration, or—if I’m really lucky—it may broaden someone’s mind. Regardless, I will continue to create, and I will continue to fight for the life of liberty in my country.

Meg Wilhoite is an editor, writer, and musician based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She has written about music for several outlets and occasionally makes her own music. Connect with her on TwitterTumblrFacebook, and/or Soundcloud.

Speak Now: Amplifying Our Voices

mic w/gradient

The 2016 presidential election was a seismic event for the United States and the world. The days since November 8 have brought forth a tsunami of uncertainty, fear, anticipation, verbiage, and introspection unlike any other comparable period in most of our memories. It seems likely that the weeks and months and perhaps years to come will be similarly without precedent.

I believe that this extraordinary time will bring monumental challenges. But we don’t need to be Pollyannas to recognize opportunity in the moment as well. We can all be freshly awake to our agency within the civic fabric of our communities, and to our potential for helping bring about the country we want to live in. We all have roles to play as individuals—and as organizations, too. If there ever were a more important time to speak and act within those roles, I haven’t seen it in my lifetime.

For almost eighteen years, NewMusicBox has been driven by a core commitment to providing members of the new music community with a place to speak thoughtfully in their own voices about the truth they see. At a time when even the notion of truth itself is in question and thoughtful, civil discourse by no means a given, it’s natural and organic for us to provide opportunity for community members to share their personal views of the moment at hand.

As a first step, we’re beginning a series of posts by artists responding to a simple request that they share what they’re thinking in their roles as artists and community members. The series title is “Speak Now.” We’re not making any assumptions about how long this series might continue or where it might lead. It’s a first step, which is the way every journey begins. It is our hope that it will invite further conversation and connection as more voices and ideas come to the table—in person, via social media, and right here on NewMusicBox.

It’s important to emphasize that, as always, the opinions of NewMusicBox authors are their own. New Music USA itself is focused not on expressing specific opinions but straightforwardly on living our values. (I say more about this in a previous post.) Amplifying the voices of our community members is one fundamental way we can do that.

It Is Time to Create by Meg Wilhoite

What change for good can I possibly effect with my distinctly non-political pieces? What can my small drop in the ocean of music do to help anyone at all?

Turning Around, Turning Away, and Turning Over by Kristin Kuster

Staying in a place of worry is reliable because it feels real, it comes naturally, it’s not something we have to work at. But when the worry creeps in, composer Kristin Kuster has found that its antidote is patience. And social media teaches us, and fosters in us, the precise opposite of patience.

Our Job as Composers Has Changed by Mohammed Fairouz

Our current political state is due to the rise of a culture of “nothing matters but us,” an age of arrogance that glorifies narcissism. Music and the arts and poetry are essentially a training field for innovation and empathy. Today a new America begins. Vigilance is vital.

A Habit of Hearing by John Wykoff

I suggest that composers give up using their music to change people’s minds (their beliefs, opinions, and convictions). Music is poorly suited for that. But music is very well suited, or least it can be, for helping people to change their habits, especially habits of thinking and perceiving.

Close Listening: Music and Us

headphones and the sea

As has been discussed on NewMusicBox before, the ubiquity of music—particularly in the digital age—has resulted in significant alterations to the ways in which we as a society interact with music and musicians. This ubiquity—at a time when fewer and fewer people receive any musical education at all, and thereby understand very little about how music is made and what it is that musicians do—has in many ways rendered music qua music valueless in an increasingly fraught capitalist economy. These factors have also had devastating effects on those who make music and on their freedom to do so.

Perhaps some of you remember the case of Metallica v. Napster back in 2000. Metallica, a highly successful heavy metal band, accused Napster, a rapidly growing P2P (peer-to-peer) file-sharing company, of copyright infringement. That is, people were downloading Metallica MP3s through the service without paying for them. I was 21 at the time and firmly on the side of Napster. I didn’t have much money in high school or college, and so liked the idea of free access to music; I felt it was in the spirit of the internet itself (which I’d been using since 1995) that content hosted there should be free. (Though I never did use Napster back then because of the hair-pullingly slow download speeds for large files.) Some even claimed that Napster’s users spent more on music precisely because they were able to “preview” albums before making a decision about whether or not to trade their money for the recording artist’s musical services. And I don’t think I was alone in the feeling that when I made an album purchase the majority of my money was going to record label execs and not the artists anyway, so file sharing wasn’t really hurting anyone.

It never occurred to me back then to consider why this file sharing was happening in the first place, the answer to which I believe is twofold: 1) People can be ravenous when it comes to recorded music. Our appetite for recorded music often far outstrips our “entertainment” budgets. 2) A complete disregard for, or in some cases an ignorance of, the real, hard work that goes into recording an album. This idea that music is something musicians do “for fun,” that performing music is easy for those who are gifted, and that music making is mystical in some way all render music valueless in the context of a capitalist economy. In essence, what musicians are faced with is a society that cannot get enough of our painstakingly cultivated skill set while simultaneously treating our desire to participate in the economy (namely, by trading our services for money) as unreasonable, delusional, or even despicable.

Needless to say, fifteen years later, my views as well as the music industry have changed considerably. As a recording musician, I absolutely want to be in charge of when people may download my music for free and when they must trade money for it. But to many members of society music just happens, a constant soundtrack created by an unseen hand, so the idea of paying for the musician’s services seems redundant.

Is the idea that musicians should be allowed to participate fully in our country’s economy unrealistic? I hope not; though—barring the introduction of a completely new economy that treats musicians as valuable members of society­—I believe it will require a sea change. We will need to demystify the music industry and the nitty gritty of what it means to be a professional musician. We need:

1) Data. The people over at the Future of Music Coalition are doing important work creating better data sets about how musicians earn money from their art. A different, but equally good example of data sharing is Jack Conte’s (Patreon, Pomplamoose) break down of what it cost his band to go on tour. (Though I take issue with Jack’s final line in that post; not all of us have credit cards with $17,000 limits.) The more we know about how musicians make money, the more we can think critically about how musicians participate meaningfully in our country’s economy.

2) Music critics to talk about music and music-making in more detail. I have no problem with talking about artists’ lives, their influences, and how they fit into the broader cultural story, but we also need to be willing to talk more about the sound of the music and the details of how it was made, performed, recorded, etc. Of all the writing I’ve done about music, none has generated more interaction from readers than my blog about music theory and the band Interpol. My in-depth analyses provide hard and fast proof of the real work that goes into their songwriting.

3) Musicians to give their supporters (fans) opportunities to support them. I’m thinking here, for example, of Bandcamp, YouTube, Patreon, plus the various streaming services. People are more willing to pay for music when they believe their money is going directly to the artist, so let’s give them every opportunity to validate our economic viability.

4) Lastly, we really need to do something about those streaming services, whose business models are flawed at best (check out this article from The Guardian for specific numbers on what artists earn from streaming; this article on Pandora and songwriters is also informative). Streaming is getting a modicum of revenue to musicians (and also giving access to music to those who can’t afford to buy it) but it’s still largely a story of the rich getting richer.

To render music valuable in our economy, to reverse the devastating effects on musicians that the digital age has wrought, we have to reeducate our society. We must make our voices heard, inspire a close listening, make viable the economic status of the maker of music.

Meg Wilhoite

Meg Wilhoite is an editor, writer, and musician based in New York City. She has written about music for several outlets and occasionally makes her own music. Connect with her on Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and/or Soundcloud.

Digital to Analog: The Needle and Thread Running Through Technology

Daphne Oram making hand-drawn inputs to the Oramics apparatus. (Via.)

Daphne Oram making hand-drawn inputs to the Oramics apparatus. (Via.)

This is a picture of Daphne Oram, demonstrating the technology she invented: Oramics. Oram (1925-2003) learned electronics as a studio engineer at the BBC in the 1940s. She composed the first all-electronic score broadcast by the BBC—in 1957, for a production of Jean Giradoux’s Amphitryon 38—and, a year later, co-founded the BBC Radiophonic Workshop. A year after that, dismayed at the BBC’s lack of enthusiasm for her work (which may be sensed in the fact that the Workshop was not allowed to use the word “music” in its name), she struck out on her own and began to develop Oramics.

Oram’s conception was a radical union of audio and visual. It was a synthesizer, but one in which the input was hand-drawn patterns on strips of 35mm film. The strips of film rolled past photoelectric sensors, and the resulting currents were converted to sound. The avant-garde possibilities of sound-on-film had been explored previously—by Oskar Fischinger, for example, or Arseny Avraamov and his Soviet counterparts (the latter well-chronicled in Andrey Smirnov’s essential study Sound in Z)—but Oramics was more ambitious, more innovative. Oram’s machine ran up to ten strips of film at once, controlling not only pitch, but amplitude, waveform, and various filters. Sound-wise, it was miles ahead of the voltage-controlled analog synthesizers of the time.

HB Oram 2This is a picture of my daughter playing with the Oramics app, an iOS-based simulation. It was released in 2011, to coincide with a special exhibition at London’s Science Museum. Oram’s original apparatus was on display—now behind glass, no longer functional. Oram had stopped working on Oramics in the 1990s, after suffering a pair of strokes; by then, the advance of electronic music had left her and her machine behind. To consider why is to, perhaps, get close to something about the nature of technology, our relationship with it, how decisions about it in one place and time shape attitudes in another place and time.

Fair warning: this article is going to take the scenic route getting to its destination—more suite than sonata. But that I should feel compelled to give such a warning is not irrelevant. Because the real question is why some things are at the center, and why some things are peripheral, and how those things get to where they are. And a good starting point for answering that question is another technology: clothes.


The Great Masculine Renunciation, M division.

The Great Masculine Renunciation, M division.

One of the great geologic-level events in the history of fashion was first named by the British psychoanalyst J. C. Flugel in his 1930 book The Psychology of Clothes. The event was, as Flugel put it, “the sudden reduction of male sartorial decorativeness which took place at the end of the eighteenth century”:

[M]en gave up their right to all the brighter, gayer, more elaborate, and more varied forms of ornamentation, leaving these entirely to the use of women, and there by making their own tailoring the most austere and ascetic of the arts. Sartorially, this event has surely the right to be considered as ‘The Great Masculine Renunciation.’ Man abandoned his claim to be considered beautiful. He henceforth aimed at being only useful.

Flugel attributed the Great Masculine Renunciation to the spread of democratic ideals in the wake of the French Revolution: with all men now theoretically equal, male fashion converged on a kind of universal neutrality. In other words, according to Flugel, the more utilitarian style of fashion spread outward from the middle class, mirroring the rise of middle-class economic power.

Flugel was, perhaps, too optimistic. David Kuchta, in his book The Three-Piece Suit and Modern Masculinity: England, 1550–1850, traces the origins of the Great Masculine Renunciation much further back, to the 1666 introduction of the three-piece suit by Charles II. Sobriety in dress was first a symbol of masculine, aristocratic propriety. Only later would the style be adopted by the middle class, in order to criticize aristocratic wealth and assert their own political power; in turn, the upper class would re-embrace the style in their own defense. Both sides, at the same time, accused the other of being insufficiently modest in their dress, of embodying not masculinity and prudence, but effeminacy and indulgence.

And note: it is entirely a parley between middle- and upper-class men. Kuchta concludes:

The great masculine renunciation of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was thus less the triumph of middle-class culture; rather, it was the result of middle-class men’s appropriation of an earlier aristocratic culture, of aristocratic men’s appropriation of radical critiques of aristocracy, and of a combined attempt by aristocratic and middle-class men to exclude working-class men and all women from the increasingly shared institutions of power. (emphasis added)

What really solidified the Great Masculine Renunciation was the great geologic-level event in the history of technology: the Industrial Revolution. What was once a symbol of judiciously wielded privilege now became a symbol of efficiency, of diligence, of devotion to productivity. The uniform of economic and political power could also signify a complete congruence of work and life. Anthropologist David Graeber, in a recent article, put it this way:

[T]he generic quality of formal male clothing, whether donned by factory owners or functionaries, makes some sense. These uniforms define powerful men as active, productive, and potent, and at the same time define them as glyphs of power—disembodied abstractions.

Dress for the cog in the machine you want to be.

A couple of months ago, I was at the annual Fromm Foundation concerts at Harvard University, which featured the International Contemporary Ensemble, for which the group opted for outfits that, while realized in individual ways, still hewed close to standard new-music-ensemble dress. In fact, the few nods in the direction of rebellion—some bright leggings here, some gold-studded boots there, ICE founder Claire Chase’s metallic silver jacket—mostly just reinforced how closely the performers still orbited the standard all-black contemporary music uniform.

I’m not sure exactly when it became standard (a day of hunting through a few decades of archived newspaper reviews yielded precious little record of what performers were wearing—something, I realize, that might very well be symptomatic of what this article is discussing), but that all-black uniform has held sway for at least thirty years, which is not insignificant. Concert dress had long since conformed to the ideals of the Great Masculine Renunciation, so it makes sense that avant-garde concert dress would go even further in realizing those ideals: more stark, more neutral, more sober. And 20th-century avant-garde music, to an unprecedented extent, was a process-based movement—serialism to minimalism and everything in between—so one might expect its interpreters to take their fashion cues from the similarly streamlined and orderly world of the factory and the assembly line. But there’s something else going on with that parade of all-black, I think, and it is a bit of fallout from technological advance. And advance isn’t really the right word, in this case. We think of technological innovation as always being expansive, opening up possibilities and dimensions. But technological innovation also contracts dimensions. And the shadow of one of those contractions survives in all those black clothes.

One of the most sweeping changes wrought by audio recording and broadcasting technology was that, for the first time ever, music was no longer, by necessity, a visual as well as an aural experience. Music had always been only heard in live performance—which meant the listener was there, looking as well as hearing. (Even exceptions—Vivaldi’s female choristers singing behind a screen or Wagner’s enclosed pit orchestra or the like—were more like unusual variations of the visual context.) But with recordings and radio, the visual portion of musical performance disappeared. All one had was the sound. The technology decoupled eye and ear.

It is, actually, akin to the Great Masculine Renunciation. The process is the same: reduce a given media—and remember, as Marshall McLuhan was fond of pointing out, clothes are just as much a form of media as any other—to its discrete components, isolate what is essential, streamline it into its most basic, direct form, cast away everything else. In this case, you have two media changing in tandem: concert dress evolved toward this extreme neutrality in order to better mimic the non-visual experience of music that recordings and radio increasingly made the norm. You could even argue that the music itself started to amplify this evolution, ever more focused on sound, how the sound is organized and produced, techniques and presentation styles following the sonic impetus toward abstraction. It echoed the favored toolbox—scientific, industrial, political—for making sense of what was turning out to be a very complicated world: divide and conquer.


Pythagoras; woodcut from the Wellcome Library, London.

Pythagoras; woodcut from the Wellcome Library, London.

The purest expression of philosophical allegiance to the sound-only experience was and is acousmatic music. The term was invented by Pierre Schaeffer, the French musique concrète pioneer, to describe the experience of hearing musique concrète, or any other sonic experience in which the source of the sound was hidden. The goal of acousmatic experience was to stop thinking about how the sound was produced and start noticing the sound itself, qualities and textures that might be elided or ignored in an audio-and-visual presentation. Schaeffer likened it to Pythagoras, the ancient Greek philosopher, supposedly lecturing from behind a veil in order to focus his students’ attention on the substance of his teachings. Thus, Schaeffer insisted, the modern technology of electronic sound reproduction was simply a recreation of ancient experience: “[B]etween the experience of Pythagoras and our experiences of radio and recordings, the differences separating direct listening (through a curtain) and indirect listening (through a speaker) in the end become negligible.”

Does it change the nature of Schaeffer’s thesis to note that the Pythagorean veil probably didn’t exist? The earliest references to it come long after Pythagoras’s time and make the veil more allegorical than real—an exclusionary implication, dividing Pythagoras’s followers into those who really got what he was teaching and those who didn’t. (Brian Kane has unraveled the Pythagorean veil—and much else—in his book Sound Unseen: Acousmatic Sound in Theory and Practice.) Then again, Schaeffer’s real, acknowledged philosophical reference point wasn’t Pythagoras. It was the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl.

Phenomenology is not an easily summarized thing, but at its core is the act of examining what exactly we perceive in order to bring to light ways we organize and narrate our perceptions. One of the better descriptions of the phenomenological process was given by Husserl’s disciple Maurice Merleau-Ponty, in his 1945 Phenomenology of Perception:

It is because we are through and through compounded of relationships with the world that for us the only way to become aware of the fact is to suspend the resultant activity, to refuse it our complicity…. Not because we reject the certainties of common sense and a natural attitude to things — they are, on the contrary, the constant theme of philosophy—but because, being the presupposed basis of any thought, they are taken for granted, and go unnoticed, and because in order to arouse them and bring them to view, we have to suspend for a moment our recognition of them…. [Phenomenological] reflection… slackens the intentional threads which attach us to the world and thus brings them to our notice[.]

It’s easy to see how Schaeffer’s acousmatic idea transfers this process into the realm of sound, veiling the relationship between a sound and its production in order to reveal how much of the sound’s nature gets lost in our compulsion to categorize it.

Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? But beneath that bright, objective surface is a nest of problems that can reiterate the sorts of presuppositions that phenomenology is meant to exorcise. Feminist interpretations of phenomenology, for instance, face the difficulty of Husserl’s idea of intersubjectivity, the assumption that other people will perceive and classify the objective world in much the same way I will. As it turns out, the “I” in that sentence is not incidental. As scholar Alia Al-Saji has written:

The consciousness that results is not only an empty, pure ego, it is also a universalized (masculine) consciousness that has been produced by the exclusion of (feminine) body, and hence implicitly relies on the elision of sexual difference. The phenomenological method’s claim to “neutrality” thus appears rooted in a form of double forgetfulness that serves to normalize, and validate, the standpoint of the phenomenological observer.

Johanna Oksala, similarly, acknowledges the suspicion “that the master’s tools could ever dismantle the master’s house.”

This might seem far away from the actual experience of music. But the thing to keep in mind is that to make some definition of the “actual experience” of music is, almost always, to make a claim of neutrality—to privilege one aspect of music (usually the sensual and aesthetic sense of timbre and rhythm and syntax) over another (usually the ramifications of the societal conditions under which the music is created or performed). And it runs into the same problem: who decides what’s essential? Every single categorical division I’ve been talking about—plain and fancy, sound and vision, parts and whole, past and present, musical and extra-musical—is similarly implicated. We call some kinds of dress sensible and some ostentatious because long-dead men (and only men) were locked in competition for who would be in and out of favor, and broadcast their convictions via the media of clothes. We analytically divide every human activity into component parts because the mechanical demands of industrial development got us in the habit. We separate aspects of musical performance by sense because a particular form of technology first did it for us, decades ago. We make divisions along lines that we never laid down.


From Daphne Oram, An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics (1972).

From Daphne Oram, An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics (1972).

Daphne Oram was temperamentally disinclined to make such divisions. Her work on Oramics turned into something resembling a new-age quest, a search for enlightenment at the boundaries of technology.  In 1972, Oram published a short book called An Individual Note of Music, Sound and Electronics. It is, on the one hand, a chatty, primer-like overview of basic ideas of sound synthesis and electronic music, but one that, at every possible opportunity, analogizes and anthropomorphizes its subject on the grandest possible scale:

In every human being there will surely be, as we have said, tremendous chords of wavepatterns ‘sounding out their notes.’ Do we control them by the formants we build up… by tuned circuits which amplify or filter? Are we forever developing our regions of resonance so that our individual consciousness will rise into being—so that we can assert our individuality? In this way does the tumult of existence resolve itself into a final personal waveshape, the embodiment of all one’s own interpretations of the art of living?

What emerges over the course of the book is that Oramics was conceptually inseparable from Oram’s critique of technology itself—but that technology could, indeed, dismantle and rebuild its own house.

If the machines, which replace the human interpreters, are incapable of conveying those aspects of life which we consider the most human, then… the machines will thwart the communication of this humanity. But need machines be so inhuman? Could we so devise a machine that, in the programming of it, all those factors which are deemed to be the most ‘human,’ could be clearly represented?

Her positive answer was the development of Oramics. Her vision of technology was—to put it as she might—one of additive, not subtractive, synthesis.

Oram ended up on the margins of the perceived mainstream of innovation, even as she pursued her uniquely holistic conception of technology. One can speculate as to why. She was too far ahead of her time for the BBC, and, perhaps, too far out of time for the electronic music community at large. Her machine was never finished. (“It is still evolving all the time,” she wrote, “for one lifetime is certainly not long enough to build it and explore all its potential.”) She had an all-or-nothing attitude—toward her work, her employers, her colleagues. She could be exacting, stubborn, single-minded, and other adjectives that would probably sound somewhat less pejorative if she had been a man.

But Oram also never got her due because she was singular, in a way that all the technocracies that make up society, explicit and implicit, couldn’t quite encompass or process. (“My machine does not really fit into any category,” she admitted.) For all her technological prowess, Oram was the opposite of what gets assigned technological value. She was integral. She was non-repeatable. She was non-modular. She was indivisible.

In the first article in this series, I wrote:

I’ve found that one really fascinating question to ask myself while listening to music that utilizes technology—old technology, new technology, high technology, low technology—is this: What’s being hidden? What’s being effaced? What’s being pushed to the foreground, and what’s being pushed to the background?

Oram is a reminder that it’s not just what gets pushed to the background. It’s also who.

Everything is real. There is no audience.



Contrary to annual fundraising-letter wisdom, I do not believe that music is a universal language. The immense variety of musical styles, systems, and genres performed around the world challenge our belief in a universal aesthetic. Do you immediately understand the use of Indian ragas? If you really stop to think about it, do you truly understand the complexity of Brian Ferneyhough’s music?

Music is a learned language, and it is a language that even as composers and musicians we must continue learning in order to stay literate. Even within the European “art” music tradition, can each music student write a fugue for transposing instruments? Furthermore, performing is a learned behavior. The understanding of music written and performed is not gifted to us at birth—otherwise music schools would have a much harder time collecting tuition!
Many in our community might argue, “Even if I don’t understand how to write a fugue, it doesn’t mean that I don’t understand music.” That is where we are making the distinction. Music performance isn’t just for those who understand the mechanics of music composition. Music and performance are relational. The fact is not that one understands the music but rather that one understands how the sounds heard, or produced, or written relate back to us. Music professionals are called to know more and that is why we endeavor to understand more of the language. Why is the sound organized in that fashion? Why does that chord make me feel that way? Performance is for all of us because it is generative not only for our own human capabilities but for our cultural system.

In my series of posts so far, I have argued that music performance is entirely for the performer and then alternately for the audience. What if music performance isn’t an either/or situation but really a both/and? It is both for the performer and the audience. In fact, it is larger than both because it is for the composer, the performer, and the audience member alike. Here’s the best part: the “and.” The act of performance is a special kind of social action—even at its most basic levels.
As Shakespeare’s famous line reminds us, we each have a part to play. When, at the end of a performance the conductor turns to the audience to gush, “You’ve been really great tonight!” I think we’ve all rolled our eyes at some point thinking, “Really?” Yes. You were there. You showed up. You actively listened and thus participated in this dialogue between musician and listener—a dialogue that is an inextricable aspect of the musical performance. You played your part.

The art object by itself is neither art nor non-art: it becomes one or the other only because of the attitudes and feelings of human beings towards it. Art lives in men and women… the processes of sharing become as crucial to the semiotics of music as the sonic product.
—from Music, Culture, and Experience: Selected Papers of John Blacking

We each have a reason for going to a performance. The terror of classical music marketers everywhere is that more audience members forget why they go to these performances in the face of all of their other options. It is true that some people go to a performance quite literally just to be seen. But we must consider the multitude of other reasons. Composers go to hear their musical ideas come to life. Musicians perform on stage to realize the fullest expression of their craft. Listeners go for escapism, for education, and possibly even for epiphany. The fact remains that each person in the performance space has a personal reason to be there. The very reason that performance is both/and instead of either/or is because we are all there to play our own parts.
Finally, there is no truer act of civil society than for all of the parties involved to voluntarily show up to a concert hall and exchange in ideas that are broader than the facts and figures of commerce. Music expresses the experience of individuals in society. Yes, there are examples of music performance bringing about social change. But, on an even more basic level, the act of presenting an idea through the arts that is being actively considered by another listening human is extremely valuable. At a time when polite discourse seems threatened at every turn, musical performance is an event wherein conflicting ideas can be corporately considered. Musical performance is an opportunity for each of us to further shape our own ideas and the society in which we live.

It was absolutely reductive to think of music being solely either for the performer or for the audience. This is a both/and situation because we all get something different out of it. We are all there to play our own parts: performer, listener, and composer. The essential thought of this argument is that there should never be two groups: the music-makers and the listeners. There are simply participants in the musical performance. Everything is real. There is no audience.

On the Purpose of Art in 700 Words or Less

Moving to a new town has triggered something inside of me that makes me question everything I do. In trying to analyze the elements of music—Where does it take place? With whom? In what notation? With what instruments?—I’ve been pulled back to a central question: What is our music for? For that matter, what is our art for? There is a lot of pop-science writing these days focused on the inevitability of music—the human soul’s yearning to make art, to create, to play. However, I’m going to lean away from that and over the next, errrrr, 600 words, attempt to explain what ALL ART is for, really. This is not a holistic survey, but is representative of my own musings of late.

1. The writer Dorthe Nors put together this fantastic piece on Ingmar Bergman and his creative solitude for the Atlantic which articulates the core job of the artist. Bergman, reflecting on his relative isolation living on a rural island off Sweden, noted, “Here, in my solitude, I have the feeling that I contain too much humanity.”—literally too much human being inside of him, too much of the human experience. Nors goes on to give a clear and thoughtful analysis of generating and making work:

Everyone feels this, but artists try to capture the feeling through art, contain it within some permanent form of expression.  And when I read a good text or see a good movie or enjoy a good piece of art—it is the humanity, this poured-out human experience, that I detect.

You should really read the whole article. I’ll wait.

It’s an essential idea: a temporary feeling of humanness articulated and made permanent in an object or composition. This is where the value lies in a system of notation that prizes concrete elements of harmony and rhythm. Works can be performed and re-performed over time. This is why we can share Bach and revisit times long gone. This is our first job.
2. Marcel Duchamp characterized art as a “game played between all people of all periods.” This frees us from the obligation of manifesting a sensibility of greater humanity inside one of our permanent (or less-than-permanent) works. Our humanness becomes a characteristic imprinted on the action, the play, the game of making things. Cage took this to heart in his lecture “Experimental Music” (1957):

What is the purpose of writing music? One is, of course, not dealing with purposes but dealing with sounds. Or the answer must take the form of a paradox: a purposeful purposelessness or a purposeless play. This play, however, is an affirmation of life—not an attempt to bring order out of chaos nor to suggest improvements in creation, but simply a way of waking up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of its way and lets it act of its own accord.

Our humanness is enough, and naturally imprints onto the work. All facets of our humanness are welcome, especially chance and indeterminacy, which I think are the core ethos of games (along with pleasure and failure). This is our second job: to play.
3. In his essay “Relational Aesthetics,” Nicolas Bourriaud vainly attempts to put all of Western art history into a production of relationships between humanity and art. His broad overview begins,  “Let us say that artworks were first situated in a transcendent world, within which art aimed at introducing ways of communicating with the deity….” All Western devotional music acted in this function for generations before art and music began exploring the relations between man and the physical world beginning around the Renaissance. Paraphrasing from Bourriaud, consider the anatomical realism that came about in visual art and the eventual rise of unnamed symphonies and pastoral music, which doesn’t explore the divine but relates music to the land itself. Bourriaud suggests that the third relationship is one that developed in the latter 20th century with the rise of relational art, or art that is “focused on the sphere of inter-human relations.” The funny thing is that music has always pointed to our social relationships as a collaborative activity taking place in real time and space. However, Bourriaud is talking about something quite different: art projects that exist as social works.

Francis Alÿs attempting to move a mountain outside Lima, Peru is a perfect example. The work invites hundreds of locals to move a mountain, to shovel and work. The group bands together, becoming a community through the work. When the piece is over, they disband and go back to Lima carrying with them the story and memory of that visceral experience. Music works this way in particularly memorable concerts—they live as stories we tell again and again. While visual art has just discovered relational work, music has been living it for generations. This might be our third call: to be social.

Conclusion I.
In searching for a source for our music, I only find more questions. How do these ideas become manifest in the work? Which archaic ideas resonate with our modes of composition, experimentation, and creation? From what future perspectives will we create from? How are old ideas made new, and new ideas made engaging? How will we use music to investigate these futures? How will these large answers impact the way that I make: my process, my everyday?

Conclusion II.
After reflecting on these thinkers and their personal answers, I see a collective call for humanness, play, and social delight. In determining the answer for yourself, it might point you to different tools, notations, instruments, or actions that lead you outside the traditional bounds of music making, but in attempting to answer such a large question we become more considered in our approach to making it.

Soul of the Nation

CD pie diagram
The artist Boris Schatz once famously said that “art is the soul of a nation.” Working as a composer and presenter of new music in Washington, D.C., where our business is the nation, I tend to think of this phrase a lot.
It may be redundant to say so at this point, but it bears repeating that new “classical” [1] music isn’t exactly a highly visible part of American culture at large (not to mention a tough way to make a living). Given the air of crisis around American classical music in general (a crisis that I, personally, find exaggerated, but that is a topic for another discussion), it seems idealistic at best, foolish at worst, to insist as I do that new music can not only play a vital role in the life of the nation, but that its role is key to the survival of classical music in the American (and, indeed, in the world’s) consciousness.

A musical life is a political life. Undertaking a life in the arts in the USA—and particularly a life in contemporary classical music—is, I would venture, an inherently political act. Ours is not to be solely purveyors of entertainment (though that is, indeed, one of our roles) but to challenge, threaten, uplift, inspire, and provide an aural experience beyond the disposably commonplace. I am not suggesting that new music [2] will or should be able to achieve the same levels of cultural hegemony (nor that it is somehow better, simply because of what it is) that more commercial forms of music are able to achieve (should we even want it to?), but it can certainly reach newer levels of cultural saturation (as it seems to be doing in a number of areas). Thankfully, there no longer seems to be much need to “apologize” for what we do, justifying it as either necessary castor oil or as no longer the uninviting quasi-noise of generations past, at least in our major metropolitan areas. (I can’t speak for the situation in smaller cities and towns away from the major new music scenes in the country.) But there is still a need for those of us who love and make this music to be increasingly proactive apologists (not apologizers, mind you) for our art and to develop radical new ways of reaching an audience that too often still feels unreachable, even while the avenues for reaching them have multiplied.

I am writing this in January 2014, having just gone through the obligatory period of begging (I’m sorry: fundraising) that occurs at the end of every calendar year. This never fails to drum up criticism and concern from various corners of our culture, criticisms that have become increasingly pervasive, especially since 2008 (just ask Bill Maher!): that the arts are not charity. We are expected to survive in the marketplace of ideas and make our money the same way that Justin Bieber, Jay-Z, Taylor Swift, and Adele make their money. To a degree, these critics are right: charity should concern itself with feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, and other, more immediately humanitarian endeavors. The fine arts should compete at the same level as popular music, Hollywood films, and mass-market teen fiction. The reality is, however, that in a society where education is valued only to the degree that it can provide quantifiable vocational skills that lead to some form of gainful employment, where citizens are unable to learn the value of knowledge for its own sake, where skills not immediately useful to industry are scorned, then not only the arts, but science and the humanities become disposable commodities to be ignored in the name of cold, hard profits. What, then, does such disposability say about the state of our nation’s soul?

Music and the other arts may not be able to feed the hungry, clothe the poor, irrigate deserts, or end oppression. They may not be particularly valuable other than as a background noise to revelry or as a source of advertising revenue. They may not even be able to keep their practitioners particularly well fed or housed, but they are as important to us–as a people, as a nation, as human beings–as the box office from the latest blockbuster film, the sale of natural gas, or the very air we breathe. To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, art may not have particular survival value, but it gives particular value to survival.

I may be becoming something of a walking cliché, a kind of “radical chic” musician who, despite appearances of open mindedness, will come off as oddly dogmatic by saying this, but I find that I have less and less use lately for people who do not value the arts as a necessary, political, socially engaged activity. If we, as composers, as musicians, as artists, want to stay clothed, fed, and housed, we must engage–radically, vociferously, loudly, uncomfortably–with the culture at large by actively playing a role in the management of our arts organizations. In this way, we might be able to free them from the constraints imposed upon them by corporate powers through strings attached to philanthropic programs, or boards of directors eager to exert disproportionate managerial power based on monetary contributions. Rather, by actively participating in governance and developing close relationships with our boards and supporters, we will be able to impose democratic values on institutions that have–like our government increasingly seems to have done–forgotten what these are. A number of ensembles in contemporary music have notably led the charge for some time, becoming their own managers and administrators, merging the concert stage with the front office.

The musicians of the International Contemporary Ensemble, eighth blackbird, Alarm Will Sound, and many others (including my own, Great Noise Ensemble) have, for some time, taken the reins of their organizations and controlled their own destiny with only a modicum of outside help. Following this model poses many challenges, chief among them striking the right balance between administrative and creative work, which itself can be complicated when you also have a day job. It is a very tricky, seemingly untenable situation that can be almost impossible to navigate until your organization is well funded enough to adequately support you and your work. If, as musicians, we see ourselves as members not only of a performing organization but as socially engaged members of a political organization, we can hopefully effect changes that will grant our art greater visibility among a wider public. We musicians cannot afford to expect our work to consist entirely of musical work. Being socially engaged begins, as it were, at home. This means taking over responsibilities that would have been the purview of an independent administrative staff in the past. When musicians take control of their business, the issues that can too often lead to fights between labor and management begin to disappear simply because labor is management.

It is telling that most of the organizations embracing this business model are in contemporary music. Much like avant-garde composers, these institutions are in the vanguard of arts management and more traditional organizations will have (and may be starting) to take notice. Until they do, they will continue to face the all-too-common lockouts, work stoppages, and endless, season-hobbling strikes. Meanwhile, those of us in the vanguard must remain strong. We must learn, like the musicians of eighth blackbird, to be our own administrators while honing our skills as performers. We must, like the soprano Megan Ihnen or Great Noise Ensemble’s own clarinetist, Katherine Kellert, develop formidable social media and publicity skills to enhance our musical work’s impact. And, like the amazing and inspiring Claire Chase and the International Contemporary Ensemble, engage in work that is greater than ourselves and our immediate social circles, developing projects to help other musicians achieve greatness. And we must see, as the founders of the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington saw, the potential for arts organizations to serve as anchors in the economic and social transformation of our neighborhoods, our cities, and our country. Granted, the organizations I’m citing as examples began as grass roots efforts and their members were able to institute these changes from the ground up. Things become far more challenging and difficult to implement within institutions that have been around for decades with their own, highly developed corporate cultures. Indeed, many of the crises we’ve witnessed in American orchestras of late may very well be growing pains in the transition to the new administrative model, in which musicians and management share more democratically in their organizations’ governance. Time will tell if this is the case, but I remain optimistic that we will weather this storm and come out stronger for it.


1. Part of the problem is the very label “classical music,” a label with which we’ve been saddled for about a century and which just conjures musty, dusty age to me.

2. Labeling is a persistent problem. “New Music” isn’t very useful as a genre when it can refer to any music not previously heard, regardless of genre.


Armando Bayolo

Armando Bayolo is artistic director of Great Noise Ensemble and curator of the New Music at the Atlas series, both in Washington, D.C., as well as a composer with an international reputation whose works have been performed in Europe, the Caribbean, and across the United States.

The First Time

As everyone in the concert music community has been gearing up for the centennial of Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, I noticed that WQXR-FM in New York City recently called several composers, performers, and radio hosts and asked them when they had first heard the piece and what their reactions to it were. I was curious what the answers to these questions were because I had an inkling that most of those answering were going to say “concert hall” or “recording.” Sure enough, out of eighteen respondents, seventeen of them remembered fondly this performance in Carnegie Hall or that high school performance or hearing it on an LP or in a college class or on the radio in the car. Most were in their teens or early 20s when they got their Printemps cherry popped, and all were strongly affected in one way or another (as a side note, I’ve noticed anecdotally that while the initial reactions of musicians to Pierrot Lunaire tend to be mixed

, most first impressions of musicians to Le Sacre tend to be emphatic and positive.)
But what about that eighteenth respondent whose first exposure to Stravinsky’s work was neither the concert hall nor a recording? Violinist/composer Owen Pallett was the only one who came clean–I am a bit dubious that he’s the only one from that list who falls into this category–and admitted that the first time he experienced The Rite of Spring was in a movie theater when he saw Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia.

The very topic of Disney’s musical pastiche writ large can be cause for eyes to roll and the animated treatment of Stravinsky’s work in particular is rarely set in a positive light. Although Stravinsky sold the rights to Le Sacre to Disney for the project (as well as those for Firebird, Petroushka, and Renard) and, at the time, seemed pleased with Disney’s adaptation, his comments about the film after it had failed at the box office ranged from “terrible” and “execrable” to “an unresisting imbecility.” For those who know the work well, listening to the Disney adaptation is more than a little disconcerting, as some sections are excised altogether while others (such as the opening) are reprised in accordance with the needs of the visual narrative.
It was not always like this. Just a year after it was premiered, an article in The Musical Times proclaimed:

A work that has had to fight for its place on the ballet stage and concert platform suddenly becomes an unquestionable masterpiece in the picture theatre. The music fits the picture to admiration, and Stravinsky comes out as the ideal auxiliary to a screen cartoonist. (Sept. 1941)

Seven years later, a Musical Times critic continued:

The same music was chosen for a different purpose in Disney’s Fantasia; and the corresponding label–death of the last dinosaur or whatever it was–is at least as valid as that attached by Nijinsky or Massine. In fact the Disney interpretation is more real to the present generation than the ancient dances were even in their own time, since the cartoon has been witnessed by the millions, whereas only a few hundreds saw the dances. (March 1948)

This last statement is telling because it can only be amplified many times over in the present day; hundreds of millions of people have seen this version of Le Sacre, many of whom were only children at the time, and were affected in some way by it. I myself don’t remember much of my early childhood, but I have always remembered my first time going to a movie in the local theater when I was three or four years old. It was in 1973 or 1974 and my parents took me to see Fantasia; it had been reissued in 1969 and occasionally was shown in art house theaters and on college campuses through the mid-’70s. To a young child at that time, that music combined with those images was extremely potent, and I was excited to see it again when it came back into the theaters in 1977 and 1982. Seeing that film was, I think, a direct precursor for my professional interest in music and film.
I’m not embarrassed at all to say that the first time I experienced Stravinsky’s work was through Disney’s eyes, but of course it wasn’t the only time I experienced it for the first time. Hearing the work as it was intended on an LP from my dad’s record collection was breathtaking and getting to hear it live for the first time was immensely powerful. During the first semester of my doctoral studies, Elliott Antokoletz’s Stravinsky seminar introduced me to the work afresh as we watched the video of the recreation of Nijinsky’s choreography; seeing the work in its balletic context allowed me to interpret the now-familiar lines in a completely new light.

Recently Frank J. Oteri explored the idea of familiarity, its importance in building audiences and the necessity of repeated performances of new works over a long period of time. Stravinsky’s Le Sacre, through the filter of Disney’s film, could be seen as a good example of Frank’s ideas put into motion. Le Sacre du Printemps–indeed, all of Stravinsky’s early ballets–were well-known to conductor Leopold Stokowski (who had conducted the ballet in 1930 with the Philadelphia Orchestra) and music critic Deems Taylor (who first suggested the piece to Disney to go along with his story of the earth’s creation). Based on the aforementioned articles in The Musical Times, the reaction to such a new musical work was made easier by its inclusion in the film.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to imagine such a film project happening today with a piece composed less than 30 years ago–say, Short Ride on a Fast Machine or Different Trains (both composed within the same window of time between Le Sacre’s premiere and the opening of Fantasia)–not because of the nature of the music, but because of the lack of trust between music and film presenters and audiences that would allow them to be open to new ideas and repertoire. If anything, this can bring us back to the qualities that make Le Sacre satisfying both immediately and with repeated study; it transcended that mistrust and became a door–a misshapen door, perhaps, but a door nonetheless–for many to venture into contemporary music throughout the past 73 years.

Commissioning Music and Stuff

A "pile" of notes from Electric Blue Pantsuit for violin and electronics.

A “pile” of notes from electric blue pantsuit for violin and electronics.

A performer friend and I were recently daydreaming about new possibilities for music commissioning—of chamber music, in particular. She gets frustrated with the long waits involved in seeking grant support for commissioning fees; planning as much as two or three years in advance for something that may or may not actually come through. While I know quite a few composers who have organized consortia of instrumentalists who all chip in money to fund a commission, I always feel slightly uncomfortable about the idea of asking performers to pay for a new piece, when it seems like they should be receiving a fee (and a good fee, to boot) to perform a new work (or any work, for that matter).

My performer friend talked about how great it would be if commissioning music were more a part of everyday life. For instance, if a person commissioned a chamber work as a birthday gift to a partner, or if a community group commissioned a piece as part of an event. While this certainly does happen, it’s not nearly as frequent an occurrence as commissioning a work of visual art, which is fairly commonplace in some circles. What if it became perfectly normal for the tax accountants of wealthy people to say, “You need to rack up a few more beefy expenses this year. How about commissioning some music? Here’s a list of organizations that can help you do that. Go for it!” Or, as my colleague Molly Sheridan has suggested, given that most people of any social stratum have no idea how to go about commissioning a piece of music (the actual piece as opposed to a recording) or other work of art, what about something along the lines of Etsy.com for composers and musicians?

Like I said, daydreaming. In a way, I understand why these scenarios are not realities. People like stuff. Stuff that can be touched, held, hung on a wall, enjoyed by passers by. I like stuff, too. Although in my world music very much counts as “stuff,” the reality is that music is constructed of air and imagination. As physical as it may seem, music can never be touched. However, a physical recording can be touched, as can a score. When Joanne Hubbard Cossa retired from the American Music Center, as a gift she received a box full of notes and score snippets from many of the composers who had been supported by AMC over the years. That was an amazing gift; beautiful, personal, and so interesting. Not exactly music, but the stuff of music.

I wonder if commissioning music would become a more widely accepted activity if, in addition to the music, there was a bit of stuff involved? An autographed score might come with a commission as a matter of course, possibly with a recording at some point, but what if the composer also included some of her or his own earlier scribblings and notes? I realize that in-process twiddlings can be very personal and many composers don’t care to share them, but that material is also something that people outside the process really like; it helps them understand a little bit of how the music comes together. One of the reasons I try to document a bit of the composing process through photos of my music “piles” is because it can provide a little something physical to associate with all of that air. People seem to genuinely enjoy it, and it also serves to gently coax listening in to the actual music.
The biggest question is, of course, how to reach the people who would partake in the commissioning process. Are there any tax accountants out there reading? It’s time to start planting seeds… lots of seeds.