Category Archives: musings about music

notation, interpretation

he said what? new music specialists

I am a big admirer of Alan Gilbert. While I’ve never worked with him, or seen his concerts live, I’ve enjoyed many a live-stream. His programming is actually interesting sometimes, even to a die-hard new music person like me.

So I am understandably disturbed by his recent interview in The Log. I wish he was familiar with the old saying, comparisons are odious!

His comments smack of provincialism. If it didn’t happen in NY, it didn’t happen. If it happened in NY, but not by a venerated ensemble, it wasn’t good enough.

I think I can speak for most of us who passionately love and advocate for new music. We do not see ourselves as superior to other musicians. We do not see our music as better. But it is different, and has different challenges.

New music deserves to be played. It deserves to be heard. The promulgation of new works doesn’t denigrate common practice music, nor the players who focus upon it.

Why do people who prefer early/new music get labeled as specialists, while people who prefer music from 1750-1900 are seen as owning the entire repertoire of concert music? Just wondering….

The players of the NYP are among the best in their field. They have specialized, but not in my area. They are certainly capable of giving wonderful performances outside their specialization – as am I! This doesn’t make them better than other musicians.

Could it be that they have a different style of playing? And perhaps that style is more appealing to Mr. Gilbert, who is dedicated to the same milieu?  In my experience, orchestral players bring a great deal of refinement to their performances of new music. Surface beauty and technical mastery can make for glorious performances for many pieces, but there are many other works in which the opposite approach is called for.  Some composers are interested in drama, technical and expressive extremes, fragility, vulnerability, the zone between mastery and loss of control….  I haven’t yet encountered orchestral players who fully embrace this awkward aesthetic and technical terrain.

While I am familiar with Mr. Gilbert’s work, he will likely never admire mine- he doesn’t know anything about me. I doubt he keeps up with the goings on of a TX new music flutist. But he shouldn’t make generalizations about musicians he hasn’t heard. He’s welcome to any of my concerts – with Sounds Modern, with Calliope Duo, even with my Nova student ensemble. The human dimension is certainly there, along with “pretty damn perfect” playing.

What’s “new,” pussycat? reprint

See below for a repost of an July, 2015 article for the blog signalsforimages. The original site is down (not sure if permanently). I haven’t changed the article, other than to omit references to signalsforimages.

I am asked all the time – what is new music? People love to categorize everything, and art is no exception.

In the enormous world of commercial western music, I view “my” music as highly marginalized. If classical music is small sliver of the western music pie (let’s make it blueberry), contemporary classical music is maybe comparable to a blueberry seed in that pie?

What about nomenclature? New music can refer to any type, really. Contemporary isn’t much better, and can have other connotations; Christian contemporary describes religious themed pop music (decades ago, a So-Cal radio station advertised “soft and contemporary,” but sadly they didn’t mean Feldman). Avant-garde has already happened. Experimental implies that it isn’t fully worked out yet, suggesting it is unfinished, unpolished, or perhaps of poor quality. Recent describes the chronology, but says nothing about style. For me, a useful distinction was suggested by a pianist friend who differentiates between contemporary (“of the time that pushes the art forward; composer might be living or dead”) and recently composed (“recently written but in an older or conservative style; probably the composer is still alive”).

I’ve noticed lately ensembles and series that describe themselves as “new music” specialists, even though they program very little new music. I am not sure why they are doing it – maybe it is good for grants? I compared a season of one such series, one such ensemble, and two professional orchestras in a major metropolitan area. The orchestras programmed 10% contemporary; the self-proclaimed “new music” presenters programmed 20% contemporary. I find this bizarre – at 20%, why not be a classical music series instead? If an orchestra programs 20% (not likely, these days), will they be a new music orchestra? By the way, I’d like to ask precisely when playing music by living composers became the exception, rather than the rule? This is the subject for another article.

The aim of a college ensemble (like my student group Nova) is education – both for the students playing in the group, and also the students who attend the concerts. With that in mind, I often program significant repertoire of the last century – pieces I don’t consider new, but still important for the students’ experience (Pierrot Lunaire is over a century old, after all!). For the purpose of teaching new music, I sometimes include works that students would be unlikely to have the opportunity to study otherwise, because these works are still outside the canon of the typical college studio or ensemble (the contemporary music related field at UNT was created to give the students encouragement in this area, particularly).

This leads me to suspect that many self-proclaimed (faux) presenters of new music view themselves as educators of their audience. Many times, as an audience member, I’ve endured embarrassing and condescending concert banter, even describing new music as medicine (“we know it tastes bad, but trust us, it is good for you!”). As a presenter of new music outside of an academic environment (in my solo and chamber concerts, and my series Sounds Modern  and ACME), my goal is for people to experience the art, and hopefully enjoy it. Learning about art can enhance the experience, of course (this is a good reason to include program notes), but in my opinion knowledge is not essential for enjoyment.

I am also often asked about how I deal with audiences, as if audiences are a problem! I have found it quite the contrary. My goal is to present music I love, and hopefully give great performances. Even playing hyper-technical harsh complex contemporary music in circumstances one might imagine to be unreceptive (a community church concert in a tiny Midwestern town, for example), I have found audiences to be warm and enthusiastic. The only times I had bad reactions from audiences were my graduate recitals at UC San Diego. UCSD  is world – famous for its emphasis on highly intellectual new music, but the local newspaper described our recitals as merely, “student flute recital, free.” Inevitably, I’d have someone storm out during the first piece – I think they expected Chaminade, or something similar, and were thus terribly disappointed! This demonstrates how helpful accurate labeling could be. Imagine if I take my young son to a movie, expecting a nature documentary (his current favorite), and instead we are subjected to a war film. Similarly, if I want to attend a new music concert, I’d be pretty disappointed to hear a concert focusing upon standard classical repertoire.

This is not to say that I don’t like combining old and new repertoire – I actually think it is a great idea! The new music group Ensemble Signal  has been featuring J.S. Bach alongside new works in a special series, and the presenter Da Camera  regularly programs inclusively, with a wide-range of repertoire. In some of my own favorite flute programs, I played Donatoni and Ferneyhough alongside C.P.E. Bach. What is essential is to present a clear programming vision so that the audience won’t be disappointed. A number of new music presenters have explained that they have “dumbed-down” their programs, yet their audience remains small and unenthused. I suspect that the middle ground pleases no one – lovers of traditional classical music might be put off by music labeled as new, whilst lovers of new music won’t be interested in conservative recently composed works.

Hearing something new has always been incredibly exciting to me. When I started performing new music, it never occurred to me that anyone would feel differently about it. As a high school flutist, I regularly went to record stores to shop for classical recordings. In a mall in Indianapolis, I heard a minimalist piece playing, and I was transfixed. I had never heard anything like it, and bought it on the spot. Glassworks  was my gateway to the other minimalists, and later experimental rock and performance art. I stumbled onto the Carter string quartets at the public library- wow! I got season tickets to the local symphony (a gift from my parents) and my favorite concerts invariably included a world premiere (the ISO did quite a few premieres during those years; sadly, orchestral premieres are a rarity now). I found I wasn’t alone in my reaction. Later, when I worked as an usher for that orchestra, at an inner-city outreach concert I saw the kids rave about the contemporary piece (it was by Christopher Rouse).

To fulfill my cravings for new sounds, I changed my shopping strategy. Instead of looking for the usual flute records, I would browse the miscellaneous classical bins at the record store, and look for composers with unfamiliar names. I’d flip the album and check for date of birth. If the composer was living (or only recently dead), I’d buy it. An accurate description of the genre would have saved me a lot of time and money (by the way, I still browse for CDs in the miscellaneous bins at Recycled Books)!

To this day, I love hearing and playing music that is truly new. To me, it is just music, but even more fun! I love collaborating with composers to create new repertoire; I love the challenge, the head scratching (and, I’ll be honest, cursing) that happens when facing new and demanding compositions. I love the electric atmosphere of a first performance; even more than premieres, I love developing and evolving the work with subsequent repeat performances. I love sharing these stimulating, innovative works with audiences, especially in unexpected venues and places. Perhaps, in my search for the new, I have described my search for a musical thrill?

So in the end, what’s new for me is a new experience – whether mine, or a colleague’s or student’s or audience member’s – that takes our imaginations to a new place. Everyone’s old and new will be different, and at this point in my life, my threshold is pretty high! I trust all of you to take the leap and have a great time.

 

 

 

 

bring back the editor

I see a lot of new and not-so-new scores, and the question of editing has been coming up a lot lately. This fall, I’m teaching a seminar on performance practice and notation of new music, running the UNT new music ensemble Nova, and coaching pieces for the upcoming International Computer Music Conference; I can testify that the care taken in editing the scores my students and I are looking at varies astonishingly. My students and I are enjoying many opportunities to solve notation/realization riddles, some of them more necessary than others. Yesterday, two students and I spent a full fifty minutes working through misprints and instrumental problems, without even starting to “rehearse” – this on a piece that (problems aside) should be easily sight-readable.

An important function of notation is to communicate to the performer. Efficiency – compositional and performative – is paramount. Performers appreciate notation that translates rapidly to physical/technical/musical action. Notation preferences are highly personal (you’ll see some of mine below), but I wanted to come up with an easy and universal checklist which might help. Thus, at 5 am this morning, I contemplated Top Ten Ways to Improve Notation, which I present here.

1. Proof-read (again and again)

Imagine trying to read a book to someone that is filled with garbled words, typos, and markings that look like letters or words (but aren’t). It would be difficult to convey a convincing reading of the text when constantly distracted by irrelevant symbols. Everyone makes an occasional mistake – that is ok! However, failing to proof-read is justifiably annoying, and can seriously undermine the performer’s efforts.

2. Inventing new symbols when standard ones will do

Why does your performer need to learn your special trill notation, for a ordinary trill? While I generally appreciate unusual notations, I dislike special symbols which connote  a return to normalcy – use ord. or norm. instead.

3. Consult orchestra and instrumentation books

A baritone saxophone will never glissando like an electric guitar. A piccolo will never play a fortissimo low Db. Check the books. Earn your performers’ trust, and don’t waste their time.

4. If you create new symbols, make sure they are evocative

Look up other similar techniques in other pieces. Really esoteric symbols should be saved for rare cases. Some of my favorites: ravens as vibrato indications, and sushi and tapas as section dividers. These are memorable and fun. Vertical and horizontal boxes, not so much.

5. Create good instructions, and don’t ignore the obvious (to you)

Do accidentals carry? Trills to semitone? Is it transposed? Are all the symbols explained? Have you included explanations for symbols from another score by mistake?  Give your performer the information they need, but omit the extraneous (see #7).

6. Re-read your score as if the first time

Question everything. Why so many double bars? What is “key breath noise”? What does “with air” mean for a flutist (i.e., is everything else key percussion)? Why do accented sixteenth notes have empty noteheads? Is a natural sign on every single note necessary? Why is the clarinet part on two staves?  Will my performer enjoy a five minute fourth finger trill, or is this a recipe for a performance injury?

7. Remove something (or some things)

Think of Coco Chanel’s advice about choosing fashion accessories – look in the mirror and take one thing off. Similarly, remove whatever doesn’t serve the score. Don’t care about pitches? Take them out! Rhythm doesn’t matter, but speed does? Use featherbeams or grace notes. Want a multiphonic but don’t care about specific pitches? Make a block so the performer can choose.

8. Easy fixes

Dynamics not aligned with the note. Parts not aligned to each other. Combine rests for readability. Double check accidentals. Choose a readable size for the score.

9. Simple gifts

Rehearsal letters. Measure numbers. Page numbers (for the piece, not the movement). Page turns that work. Fingerings that work.  Cues. References to instrumental treatises. Anything a composer can do to streamline the practice and rehearsal process is greatly appreciated by the player.

10. for whom are you writing?

Unless money is changing hands, good notation is the best way to earn a performer’s interest. As a composer friend of mine says, “Notation selects its performers” – musicians who choose Rorem will generally pass up Finnissy, and Feldman fans seldom choose Liebermann. It’s not just the content; we generally know if we’re seeing music of possible interest after scanning a few pages. What performers will sloppy and confusing notation select?

Guest post: Subtlety, intricacy, and hidden complexity: not a manifesto

I am delighted that Andrew May is our guest blogger today. Andrew May_smallis best known for innovative and subtle chamber music, some of which involves computer-based agents interacting with human performers. He has taught composition and directed the Center for Experimental Music and Intermedia at the University of North Texas since 2005. Born and raised in Chicago, Andrew studied composition with Roger Reynolds, Mel Powell, and Jonathan Berger. His music can be heard on CDCM, SEAMUS, and EMF Media recordings, and his solo CD Imaginary Friends on Ravello Records.


I’m honored to be a guest blogger for New Music Pioneer. I’m a
composer, violinist, computer musician, and teacher in North Texas – like Elizabeth, an avant-garde musician dreaming up the future in the unheralded middle of the country. Right now I’m working on a piece of music that is driving me half crazy with the number of dimensions and details I have to pin down to make it work. What will it sound like? Slow, simple, and beautiful, if all goes well.

Then why one earth am I putting all this work into thousands upon
thousands of details? Part of the reason is the computer; I’m creating interactive performance systems, and computers are morons. To get a computer to make musically intuitive choices that any beginning musician would take for granted requires countless hours of meticulous programming, testing, and tuning. This is a great discipline to remind a composer of just how much goes into interpreting simple music in a simple way. As we enjoy the delicious sound of a great violinist playing a single whole note, we don’t necessarily think of the subtle choices and adjustments of bow pacing, position, and pressure, not to mention the left hand’s vibrato, that bring to life this simple thing that is represented on a page by a single oval. On the other hand, a lack of control could create a very complex sound (the crunching of excessive bow pressure, the multiple skittering repetitions of a note from a shaking bow arm, the slide into the desired pitch if it’s hit out of tune, and so on); the possibility of great simplicity is in fact the result of years of arduous work and intense thought. Likewise, back in the days when a composer expected performers to embellish his music with ornaments, it was understood that a heavily ornamented performance was usually the work of a fool or a charlatan, not a great musician (the same can be said of electric guitar solos, or gospel singing, or any number of present-day examples).

Modern composers’ music is often quite overtly complex. Since I’ve
proposed that the performance of something simple is a complex
business, I’d prefer to call this notational intricacy rather than
complexity (I may get in trouble with friends and colleagues for this,
but that’s life on the Web). There are scores that have easily
hundreds of times more instructions per second of music than, for
example, a slow movement by Corelli. What’s striking about the
experience of listening to these works (to take a beloved example,
Brian Ferneyhough’s flute solo Cassandra’s Dream Song) is that the
audible complexity in performance does not reflect the degree of
notational intricacy. Many of the instructions in the score (like
those I give to the computer, actually) have to do with nuances of
timing, dynamics, timbres, and other elements that shade the meaning of the music, but don’t produce lots of individually perceptible events. In a way, this sort of notation is a way of micro-managing the subtle art of performance. Perhaps in some cases it grows from a fear (often justified) that a performer’s approach to new music might lack subtlety. It certainly tests the performer’s technical and mental abilities, which selects a particularly wonderful sort of performer to become a devoted interpreter of this repertoire (I’m thinking of Elizabeth here).

People have sometimes commented that my music looks easier or simpler than it is. I suppose this is deliberate. I want to invite subtlety, not force it – but my music dies without it. That’s why it’s a lot more fun for me to work with a great performer than with a computer – and why even when I do work with computers, there are always live performers involved too: to quote John Cage, “other people think.” If my score elicits thoughts, feelings, intuitions that a performer can bring to the performance (or even ornamentation – I suffer from Baroque envy), then the resulting performance has a layering of complex ideas and actions that no complexity in the world could capture on paper (let alone in software). The simpler the notation, the more room there is for it to elicit subtle and meaningful nuances. The composer’s burden becomes finding the exact right notation (Morton Feldman, the king of deceptive simplicity, set great store by the “notational look” or “notational image” as a primary element of composition). The visual appearance of the score, of an individual note even, speaks volumes to the experienced interpreter. Get it right, and magic can happen. Get it confused, and the performer’s interpretation may be at cross-purposes to the composer’s intention.

All this may help to explain why forward-looking composers (i.e. those who don’t want their music to sound as if it could have been written long before they were born) so often tend toward intricacy. Subtle simplicity requires a great deal of invisible work and painstaking consideration; it also requires intense empathy for the performer, and above all trust that one’s work will be treated with respect and insight. Most composers have had far too many experiences that eroded that trust, and it’s hard to rebuild. It can be comforting to spend those lonely hours in the composer’s studio putting lots of information on the page and trusting that this, at least, will get the job done. Luckily, whatever approach one takes as a composer, there will be some performers who will get it and will run with it. As I once proposed to Frederic Rzewski at the end of a long evening (and he agreed at the time), “it doesn’t really matter what you write as long as it’s played by the right person.” So this truly is not a manifesto for simplicity, or even for subtlety, and it’s certainly not a rant against complexity or intricacy. It’s more a confession to myself that the painfully long hours I spend making minute decisions about the details of something apparently simple – for better or worse – are exactly what I need as a composer.

What’s “new,” pussycat?

cropped-horn-signal1

I am delighted to be a guest writer for new music blog Signals for Images. For her new blog, Jolene has assembled five other musicians to join her in writing about new music. Five of her group are students of mine, either current or former, in the Contemporary Music Performance Practice class I teach, the student new music ensemble I direct, the Contemporary Music Performance related field I coordinate, and in dissertation and thesis preparation. Their blog is in the early stages, and I am excited to see how it develops!

The topic I chose to write about I’ve been thinking quite a bit: defining new music, and as an extension of this label, exploring how we reach audiences. Read the full article here.

got rhythm?

Over the years, I’ve heard recordings in which performers distorted rhythm or tempo in ways I found surprising and extreme. I wondered why–as in, “why did they get so slow here when the score suggests otherwise – do they know something I don’t? Did the composer change the piece?”

Lately, I was in conversation with a wonderful musician/performer, who answered these questions for me: the performers took extra time because they couldn’t play in time. Duh!

This isn’t always the fault of performers. Sometimes, composers write awkward or even downright unplayable things. What is the performer to do when this happens? A common approach is to distort the tempo or rhythm in order to “fit in” all the unplayable notes. Is this the only solution? Or the best solution?

Pianist Marc Couroux (among others) has published an article discussing his approach to Xenakis’ massive piano work Evryali – a piece literally unplayable as notated. Couroux argues that the tempo and energy are paramount, and that some pitches must be sacrificed (i.e. omitted).

Like Couroux, I believe these decisions depend on context. Sometimes the pitches are not the most important element: the gesture, energy, timbre, mood, character, trajectory, rhythm, and tempo might be more essential to the music than the precise pitches. But how does one decide what is the best way forward?

I suggest one let go of the notion of “should,” as in, “I should be able to play this as written.” Yes, indeed, and I should be a statuesque millionairess! Shoulds aside, diligent practice is crucial before resorting to score adaptions (transcriptions?). When you are considering revising a score, you owe it to the composer to fully consider his/her notational choices. Next, solve the problem. This may involve compromises to the score. The necessity of these compromises might change as you grow and change as a player. Therefore, be open to revising your compromise – revisit your solution periodically, to see if it it still the best solution for you and the work.

Savor the flavor

Composer Paul Wilson and I just postponed a premiere of Paul’s new piccolo/computer work U.F.O. We were thrilled that we had been invited to play the piece at an international festival. However, cold reality set in – the piece doesn’t really exist yet. Paul is in Belfast, I am in Texas. How would we, in 2 months, put together this work for the premiere in a remote location?

We talked about it. We knew we could do something like the piece, but possibly not really the piece. Paul said he could make some major family and professional sacrifices and try to finish some kind of computer part. If we could find somewhere to rehearse the day beforehand, we’d probably not embarrass ourselves too much.

We realized we wanted to do more than give a passable premiere of a hurried project. This is our third collaboration, and we want to enjoy it, not hurriedly put something together. So, we reluctantly withdrew the piece from the festival, to give us more time to create and realize the work.

Years ago, a baroque flutist confided to me that she loved playing new music, but didn’t have the time. I was a bit taken aback. I thought: “sure, that is why I play new music – I have more time than other people!”

Some time later I came to think she was onto something. As performers of this art, we develop skills to help us efficiently navigate the learning of brand new works. Speed is often paramount; for example, many times I have been called upon to learn works very quickly for a premiere. Having a strong grounding in extended techniques is helpful, as is flexibility with nonstandard notations and rhythms. It makes sense that the more one practices these skills, the more natural and effortless they eventually become.

Many composers strive for speed as well. Sometimes they take on too many projects at once and need to move onto the next one. At other times, the work becomes more ambitious to realize than originally planned (a common occurrence when working with electronics, especially). Composers, like performers, develop techniques to optimize their efficiency in the creation of the work.

With all of this concern with speed and efficiency, we’ve lost the pleasure of the process. Tackling an artistic challenge is immensely gratifying. For the regular new music performer, these challenges can be hard to come by, and perhaps even more difficult to make time for. The economic reality of playing music for money is that performers take on all the paying performances they can manage to squeeze into their schedules. For many, that doesn’t permit learning works over a long time frame, or practicing pieces that might not be performed in months, or even years.

When I taught a “Music after 1945” undergraduate course, I assigned Steven Schick’s wonderful article (and/or book chapter) about learning Ferneyhough’s Bone Alphabet. I was surprised by the number of students who seemed offended by the difficulty of Bone Alphabet – they were livid! They viewed it as Ferneyhough torturing Schick. I tried to convince them that Schick welcomed and appreciated the challenge.

In Harvey Sollberger’s new work Soli e Scherzi, written for pianist Shannon Wettstein and me, he wrote in the dedication, “As I composed it, I had very much in mind the performing skills of its dedicatee, the Calliope Duo… I’ve known them for years, and know them to be not just fine performers, but performers who relish music that is challenging and that functions on multiple levels; that is, music you don’t just ‘use’ and discard, but music that you live and grow with over a considerable period of time and through multiple performances.”

In a premiere-driven culture, this approach is unusual. Rushing through a project can have unfortunate repercussions. Premieres are usually not the best presentation of a work (this is well documented, by numerous performers). Frequently, adaptions are made to “get through” the urgent premiere, with the intention to “correct” in subsequent performances. It is common that those “corrections” never happen, as the initial version becomes the standard (in the minds of the composer/performer, primarily – it can be hard to un-do the original realization of a piece). Furthermore, I’ve heard highly successful composers, with enviable careers, bemoan their lack of subsequent performances (lots of premieres, but no repeats).

There is much to be gained by prolonging the process of collaboration. Intricacies can be introduced. Being able to “play” with the material leads to experimentation, often with fruitful results. Ideas can be exchanged, and implemented or discarded. Notation can be modified and clarified. For the performer, the benefits are many. Performers are more likely to have a direct effect on the materials and how they are treated. The player can take the time to truly internalize the composition. Having internalized the piece, the performance is even more satisfying (for them, and likely the listeners). Having invested so much time means the performer is likely to commit to many repeat performances (which benefits the composer as well).

Time is necessary for this sort of deep, detailed work. In a culture that venerates quantity (more gigs rather than better gigs), musicians are not accustomed to rejecting exciting opportunities. Sometimes is it the best choice. Postponing Paul’s premiere was an uncomfortable decision, but ultimately the right one.