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Guest post: the score is an affordance. DAMN.


After a bit of a break, New Music Pioneer is back! Today’s post is another guest blog from Andrew May, a composer, improviser, violinist, and computer musician who teaches at the University of North Texas.

For many years I have proposed to all who will listen that “it’s all music”: in other words, it’s at best wasteful, at worst culturally damaging to erect walls around differences of style, subculture, training, and technique. As I read various composers’ reactions to the Pulitzer Prize committee’s choice of Kendrick Lamar a year ago, a lot of the negative reactions clearly grew from this tendency to Balkanize musical culture. I don’t have much patience for that, and I was frankly disturbed by the suggestions of racial and cultural superiority I found in some of the comments. However, something more fundamental occurred to me as I read an insightful comment from composer and computer musician Eric Lyon: he observed that last year’s Pulitzer Prize award was remarkable not only because Kendrick Lamar is a rapper but also because he is a computer musician and DAMN. is a recorded work of computer music, created in the studio.

The Pulitzer prize is a prize in music, not a composition prize per se, but for most of its existence it was awarded to the composer of a particular work of music, and a document – a score – was the embodiment of that work. When the Pulitzer prize began, it was assumed that a “composer” was a person who conceptualized a musical experience and then communicated it to a performer or performers through a written musical score, and that the performer(s) would interpret the score in front of an audience in real-time to create an ephemeral shared experience in time and sound. Composers were valued for making up things the performers could not have come up with, which not only saved them time and labor, but also added value to the resulting experience. A score can have great utility value for musicians; the prize recognized people who created particularly effective ones.

Note that a score need not have notes! Even a traditional score of music typically uses words, at least, to clarify the intention, meaning, and character of the music notation. Music notation is a specialized language, fluency in which confers the status of “professional” musician within the traditional guild culture of concert music; it was another assumption of the Pulitzer that composers awarded would be part of this elite and circumscribed tradition, and that the awarded work would have a traditionally notated score. Of course, many modern “scores” consist entirely of words, diagrams, or images, and need not be written down at all. To be a composer, one must simply come up with an idea for a musical experience (whose details may be thoroughly worked out or deferred to the performers to some degree) and share it in a way that can be realized effectively; this notion of “score” applies to composed or directed improvisations equally well. From a design perspective, the score is an affordance that allows musicians to make better musical experiences in performance with less work. The value of an affordance lies in its utility and useability, not its cultural pedigree.

A recording is also an affordance, but a very different one. Its function is to allow listeners to reproduce a musical experience consistently, in any time or place, without need for performance or other human agency. Beyond their shared musical intention, the function of a recording really could not be much more different from that of a notated score. If you define workers by their products, the traditional composer and the computer musician are vastly different types of artist. Their processes converge at the beginning (imagination) and the end (aural experience), and in between they travel very different roads. The recording artist’s market is not musicians, but listeners. In fact, recordings don’t require any musicians to perform at all; there is plenty of “pure” electroacoustic and computer music generated entirely in the studio and existing only on recording. Most modern rock, hip-hop, and of course electronica recordings (who put up those boundaries? what are they trying to protect?) are fundamentally different from the “traditional” notion of a sound recording: they don’t make any claim to represent an actual performance, but are works created using the tools of the studio, layer by layer, process by process (the use of distinctly audible auto-tuning on vocal tracks is yet another reminder that the performance is not the product). The ideal concert performance of such works is a spectacle that embodies and amplifies the recorded sound through dance, lighting, sets, and projections; live performance, with all its uncertainty and imperfection, is in fact a detriment to the goal of reproducing the sound everyone in the audience already knows and loves from the recording. This is precisely how many live performances work, if only for practical reasons – it is much more reliable to lip-synch than to try to sing well in the midst of an elaborate stage show.

Like any dichotomy, the score/recording division is permeable, and one of the great innovations of the 20th century was the recycling of recordings into new performances, first using turntables or tape decks as instruments, and later using digital sampling. This practice of recycling and recombination of sounds is at the core of the modern computer music studio practices of rap and hip-hop. Likewise, the first Pulitzer for a work involving electronics was in 1970, long before computers entered the recording studio or digital sampling became a widely available technology; it was for Charles Wuorinen’s Time’s Encomium, which was also the first purely recorded work to be awarded (the following year the prize went to Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms #6, which includes a recording but still involves a performer interpreting a score at the piano in an ephemeral experience on stage in front of an audience). Wuorinen’s work, which was encoded onto punch-card “scores” that controlled the RCA Mark II synthesizer at the Columbia-Princeton Electronic Music Center, was a radical departure from tradition, but still a traditionally “composed” work – which happened to be written for a non-human “performer.” I can find no work of computer music created in the recording studio in the Pulitzer lists before DAMN. The culture of computer music as an experimental practice is still somewhat integrated with the culture of instrumental and vocal composition; their composers are trained in the same institutions, with the same basic curricula, and tend to wind up working in the same buildings and attending the same concerts. This diminishes the distinction between composers who create scores and composers who create recordings; but they are indeed different types of worker producing different types of product, and requiring fundamentally different skills.

Conflating creators of scores and creators of recordings as a single metier involves a “sleight of mind” no less intense than that of seeing three dimensions in a painting through the techniques of perspective. Instead of spatial depth, agency and communication are the dimensions inferred from the flat surface of a recording. We are used to hearing sound and inferring agents communicating with each other and ourselves; this is the basis of my own passionate pursuit of interactive computer music, in which agency is distributed, blurred, and confused between the sounds of live performers, algorithmic responses, and pre-recorded sounds. The composer, improviser, and trombonist George Lewis was one of my inspirations in this craft; I once heard him say, in discussing his work Voyager, that he was not particularly interested in sound. This was a deeply meaningful overstatement: it was the strongest way to get the point across that he was focused on agency, interaction, and community. The agency of performers communicating with each other in real-time is the heart and soul of traditional musical performance, and (alas?) if music is heard through speakers or headphones, it is no longer necessary. This represents a much larger difference even than the much-discussed dichotomy between the perspectives of improvisers and of composers of notated music; both are deeply invested in the cultural place of live performance, which has been terribly diminished by the trend toward private experiences of music on recording. This fact has transformed both the economics and the culture of music globally, and imperils the traditional role of not just composers, but performers and improvisers as well. It is no surprise if some musicians feel strongly around these issues.

Perhaps this offers a plausible window into why people of good will and cultural inclusiveness could still feel disturbed by the DAMN. Pulitzer. Such disturbance, however, is still probably misguided; the Pulitzer is a prize in “music,” and in our culture here and now, “music” refers to recordings at least as much as performances. In that wider context, there is a lot more work worthy of consideration than just the works of self-described “composers” of concert music. This is not the Pulitzer’s first crisis of inclusiveness, either. Improvised music long questioned the assumptions of the Pulitzer Prize committee, not only musically but also in terms of racial and cultural hegemony. A particularly tragic moment in this history was the committee’s refusal to award the prize to Duke Ellington in 1965. Pulitzers awarded to Henry Threadgill in 2016 and Ornette Coleman in 2007 were important steps toward proper acknowledgment of the art of improvised music: the performers’ freedom in creating these works was categorically different from any previous Pulitzer awardees (though there was certainly improvisation in Winton Marsalis’s Blood on the Fields). Not having been present in the studio as these recordings were created, I can’t say to what extent Threadgill or Coleman acted in anything like the traditional role of “composer”; but my understanding from the sound and the culture of these works is that the musicians realizing these works were communicating with each other in real-time, coming together to realize the music as a performance that was recorded, with the intention of honoring ideas expressed by the named composer through a combination of written and oral indications. The recorded performance was then transformed into an ideal representation of the work (through the usual techniques of mastering, at least, and possibly involving editing, overdubbing, or other standard procedures of the recording studio, but with the point of reference always being the recorded performance). It seems congruent, and somewhat reassuring, that these prizes, awarded to African-American musicians and building upon a tradition distinct from that of most earlier Pulitzer-awarded works, raised fewer hackles. Racism and cultural bias are real, but they may not be the primary issues in the DAMN. controversy.

DAMN. is a remarkable musical achievement, not just because of Kendrick Lamar’s skill in the rapper’s art of poetry in rhythm; as Eric Lyon observed, it is first and foremost the art of computer music that makes this record stand out. In this practice, even when material is recorded from a performance in the studio, there is no illusion that the performance is the product. Any given recorded sample may be used or not used, may be foregrounded or buried in the mix, may be processed out of recognition, may find its place in a very different context than it was originally recorded, and so on – the process of “composing” or putting together the work happens at the computer and the mixing desk, after the process of performance – or rather, as a particular and private manner of performance. In a live show, the performance is re-constructed and re-enacted, using the recorded tracks not only as points of reference but as material: most of the music heard behind Kendrick Lamar’s voice in concert is coming from digitally recorded media. The live performance, in this sense, is a celebration of the artist’s identity and of the recorded work created by the named artist and many others collaboratively in the studio – usually in several different studios.

The recorded work is itself the product of a community, not just an individual – in this respect it resembles the process of a piece written in score notation, which no one hears until a community comes together to reify it. DAMN. involved a substantial cohort of musicians (none of whom appear on stage in any of the videos I have seen from the DAMN. tour): no fewer than 11 producers, 10 additional vocalists, and 4 instrumental performers. This was not an ensemble, preparing the music together and then performing it in front of microphones; the process was one of overdubbing, looping, assembly, and intensive manipulation of time and sound at the computer. The ensemble is technologically mediated, and often technologically generated. This is entirely congruent with the experience of living in 21st-century America: we are used to technological mediation and displacement in our communications, and indeed we take it for granted. Even in the context of recorded music, the idea of several musicians in a room with a microphone overhead as they communicate with each other in real-time to make a recording is distinctly old-fashioned. In Kendrick Lamar’s live performances, most of the music comes from digital media, but he is very much present in real-time on stage (and reproduced larger than life on screens), rapping live with accompaniment from digital media based on the studio recordings, amplified and contextualized by an intense multi-media experience including multiple screens, set pieces, costumes, digitally controlled lighting and pyrotechnics, and in at least one case martial arts performance. It is effective use of technology to contextualize, support, and enhance one man’s intense communication of personal and psychological experience.

The technology used in the studio to create these recordings is likewise appropriate to the purpose; it is skilfully used to manipulate words, identities, beats, and instrumental harmonies in a way that questions, intensifies, and contextualizes the personal and psychological experience embodied in the words. In fact, I agree with many others who have pointed out that To Pimp a Butterfly goes even further down this artistic path; but both albums grow from the techniques of the studio, and their manifest strengths are intrinsically connected to the subtle and imaginative use of that environment. Further, the studio recordings are the urtext for the performances: there is no set of written documents from which any other performers, now or in the future, could meaningfully create the musical experience of DAMN.

Recordings have been with us a good century now, and they have changed the culture of music globally, categorically, and irrevocably; Jacques Attali’s Noise: The Political Economy of Music is a great analysis of this (even if you don’t buy into the notion that musical originates as a “simulacrum of ritual murder”). A lot of performing musicians, myself included, are deeply saddened that this cultural transformation has caused the majority of people’s musical experiences nowadays to be private, technologically mediated, and infinitely reproducible (i.e. listening to recordings on earphones) instead of communal, corporeal, and ephemeral. Our sadness doesn’t change the facts on the ground, and most of us put up with the need to document our work as digital media, if only as a means of publicity. We are all computer musicians now, to coin a phrase.

Recordings have also changed the nature of the score. I have observed many composers – including some very good ones – notating instrumental effects they have heard on recording, and often expressing some consternation when they don’t sound right on stage. It is, of course, because the sounds they heard and loved were created in the studio (close mic recording, compression, filtering and reverberation produce electronic versions of acoustic sounds that cannot be reproduced in a purely acoustic performance). Certain kinds of coordination and synchronization of events and rhythms that can be easily generated in the studio turn out to be impossible to realize in performance (without the intervention of a click track, which presents its own host of issues). Tempi and patterns that sound gorgeous in an audio sequence may prove impossible to realize reliably in real life. Even when these problems are negotiated and the work is performed, often composers are as focused on the documentation as they are on the performance – which is only natural, in fact – the performance happens just once and is often ill-attended, while the document can be shared widely and repeated infinitely on line. A student I was working with recently proposed using a recording as a score, which the performers would study by listening and imitating. I myself did just that in Recyclers, a 2009 work based on mockingbird calls.

All this leads, first of all, to the conclusion that some composers who resent Kendrick Lamar’s Pulitzer success might do well to recognize that it is (among many other things) a just and appropriate acknowledgment of the fact that the culture has changed, and the traditional role of composer as producer of written documents to be interpreted in live performance is essentially anachronistic. As a musician trained and active as a composer in this traditional sense – loving that art with all my heart and soul – I recognize this with a great deal of sadness, but sorrow is no reason to deny the obvious. The cohort of performers who engage seriously with newly written scores is diminishing, and their professional opportunities are diminishing even faster. The relationship between the subcultures of performance, improvisation, and composition (which should never have been separated in the first place, but that’s another story) is rife with problems: mistrust, disrespect, misunderstanding, absence of common cause, disparate terms and assumptions, failures of communication, competition for diminishing resources, and so forth. For myself, I consider it important to work through these problems, and to find productive common ground with the most dedicated performers I can find. No matter how successful we may be, however, I have no expectation that anything my colleagues and I can do will bring notated music back to its past place of glory in our musical culture – and indeed, why should it? I am fundamentally content with the situation; I make music for love, not for wealth, power, or authority.

A second conclusion also arises: it might make sense for those who wield the emblems of wealth, power, and authority to be as clear as possible about what they are awarding and why. There is a legitimate difference to be found between music that exists primarily on recording (a context in which Kendrick Lamar has been widely and justly awarded already) and music whose meaning arises from performers realizing shared ideas in live performance. I think many composers who were nonplussed by the 2018 Pulitzer – even those who truly don’t believe in the supremacy of the traditionally white, male, Eurocentric world of notated concert music – rightly see a different between the now-hegemonic vocation of the creator of recordings and the now-endangered vocation of the creator of notated scores. If the affordance of the score – or indeed, that of the concert hall – is still is seen as having some value, there probably should be categories of award in this realm that are distinct from those for recorded music. If creators of recorded works wish to be called “composers,” my response is delight that the culture of the future looks for validation in the anachronisms that I love; it makes me feel less alone and irrelevant. It is, for all that, a different craft – no less difficult, subtle, or valuable – just different.

The notated score is an affordance that encodes and shares meaningful information in unique and wonderful ways. So too were cuneiform tablets, parchment scrolls, wax cylinder recordings, mimeograph machines, manual typewriters, sextants, and slide rules; they were all lovely, but their time has come and gone. Damn! Perhaps music as we used to make it is dying or even dead; nevertheless, long live music. We may mourn the loss of the old ways and still celebrate together in the present. After all, when we express our experience and share our consciousness by playing with time, sound and silence, it’s all music.

London Sinfonietta at 50

Kudos to the NYTimes for this article celebrating the London Sinfonietta’s 50th anniversary.

I felt a bit sad to see no American groups included in their list of ‘the competition’ – though it is a fair point. Is it true in London, as Mr. Snowman stated, “These days, almost everybody plays contemporary music to some extent…”? It isn’t really true here in Texas.

New music needs visionaries – people like Mr. Snowman, and William Glock (and even the Beatles) who are willing to support it. Cheers to a group who started with no business plan, but only a vision: “Our sole criterion in programming,” Mr. Burke said, “is whether we believe a piece is good.”

stronger, not weaker

In my experience of performing new music (well over 2 decades) and teaching new music (at the college level for more than 10 years), I have found practicing and learning new music improves playing.

Here are some examples:

Tone: pieces with altered timbres encourage players to develop, practice, and control different timbres. On flute, for example, practicing air sounds can help players clarify their “normal” tone. Compositions requiring various degrees of air vs focused tone, even more so.

Harmonics: improves technical control and pitch hearing.

Unusual harmonies: for strings can require different hand positions; left hand flexibility. For winds, embouchure and finger flexibility.

Complete Sul pont/sul tasto: develops awareness and control of contact points.

Vibrato: develop different speeds and intensity as an expressive tool. Good for helping control unwanted quivering as well. Nonvib can reveal otherwise hidden tone problems.

Whistle tones: develops embouchure control; reveals hidden physical tension; coordinates lip/finger/ear; especially good for excess tension.

Tuning: microtones develops pitch hearing, as do glissandi.

Singing while playing: develops embouchure control and ear training; helps eliminate unwanted throat noise.

Circular breathing: develops embouchure control; encourages intention regarding breath.

Ability to conduct from/with the instrument: improves rhythm, tempo control, playing position, physical control, communication, ensemble coordination.

Complex rhythms: solidifies sense of pulse; simpler rhythms get easier; improves chamber music skills (watching, listening, cueing).

Repetition of pulse: solidifies sense of pulse; improves chamber music skills (watching, listening, cueing).

Extremes of dynamic, articulation, register: develops control of embouchure/bow, tuning. Exploring the extremes of one’s technique is useful for subtle playing as well.

Lack of recordings: learning previously unheard/unplayed/unrecorded compositions develops interpretative skills, improves score reading, mentally “hearing” the score, rehearsal strategies, imagination, problem solving, expressivity….

How do you find new music improves playing? Let us know in the comments.

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.

Trailblazer: Joseph Klein


photo credit: UNT Photo / Adriana Salazar Caro

We’re presenting a concert of works in Denton on September 19, featuring the works of Joseph Klein. It will include seven of Klein’s solo pieces, alongside his new ensemble work Canetti-menagerie. To mark the occasion, I thought it’d be fun to feature my colleague as our next trailblazer.

EM: With this upcoming event, I’d love to hear more about how these Canetti writings have inspired you since 1997 (or perhaps earlier?).

JK: Oddly enough, I discovered Elias Canetti‘s writings through the work of another composer, Magnus Lindberg, who himself had been influenced by Canetti’s seminal work Masse und Macht (Crowds and Power) in his 1985 composition Kraft. Intrigued by the concept behind Lindberg’s composition, I immediately went out and got a copy of Canetti’s book and was fascinated by his analysis of power systems and group dynamics, as well as his distinctive writing style. I was a doctoral student at Indiana University at the time, and several years later, after coming to UNT, I discovered Canetti’s Der Ohrenzeuge (Earwitness) at our local used bookstore — a quirky little book containing fifty brief character studies of the most bizarre, surreal personalities imaginable. It was quite the opposite of Crowds and Power, which dealt with human behavior in groups: these were paradigms of individual behaviors encapsulated into ironic, pithy caricatures. Halfway through the book, I realized that these characters were perfectly suited to musical interpretation as a series of works for various solo instruments. That was almost twenty years ago, and I have thus far composed sixteen solo works based on these characters, with more to come. In recent years, I began thinking about how these characters might interact with each other at a social gathering of sorts, and came up with an open-form chamber work titled Canetti-menagerie, which uses the material in each of the individual solo works as the basis for semi-improvisational interactions between the various performers.

EM: How has the culture of new music in North Texas (and at UNT), changed since you arrived here 2 decades ago?

JK: I think the most significant change at UNT since I’ve been here has been the dissolution of an arbitrary barrier between acoustic music and music technology that existed within the composition program at the time. When I arrived in 1992, there were computer music composers and acoustic music composers — different teachers, different students, separate courses, separate teaching assistants, even separate concert series and different performance spaces. There was relatively little integration between the two sub-groups of composers at the time. Among some of the faculty, in each camp, there was an underlying antipathy for the composers from “the other side.” Of course, this attitude was passed down to the students as well, and was not a healthy environment for building a robust community of composers, which we truly have now. Composers who are currently in the program — both faculty and students — are comfortable working in both realms, and there is much more understanding and mutual respect between what were previously two distinct areas. Needless to say, we no longer separate students, teaching assistants, or concerts based on this distinction either. I think this change in attitude over the past quarter century or so has been a natural by-product of our increasingly technological society — most people under the age of 30 take technology for granted these days, as a ubiquitous part of their lives — but sadly, there are still many composition programs around the country that practice a kind of segregation between these two worlds, which is such an antiquated mindset and completely untenable in the long run. I suppose as younger faculty are hired to these university positions, these old attitudes will eventually become a thing of the past.

As far as the performance of new music at UNT, the increasingly professional level of the Nova Ensemble (due in large part to your leadership, Elizabeth!) and the creation of a related field in contemporary music for graduate performance majors have certainly elevated both the level of new music performance and the awareness among faculty and students in general to the issues we deal with as new music practitioners. I feel that we could do an even better job creating opportunities for composers and performers to collaborate here at UNT, but I also believe that the overall quality of new music performances among students has vastly improved over the past decade or so.

EM: Your biography discusses fractal aesthetics and other abstract models for musical thought. How do you reconcile that with your engagement as a performer, and your sensitivity to the practical issues of communicating and creating music?

JK: I guess my interest in these abstract models and systems comes from my fascination with science and natural phenomena since I was young. (I was a microbiology major through my sophomore year in college, so this interest was strong enough that it almost became the basis of a career.) Perhaps the use of these processes in my music is a way that I could have my cake and eat it too — living vicariously as a “scientist” through my work as a composer! However, I am also very interested in performance, the inherent theatricality of the concert experience, and the engagement of an audience by the performers. I think it is relatively easy to square these two seemingly disparate concerns in one’s work: nature is elegant and inspiring and beautiful whether or not you understand the complex processes behind it; in the same way, a work of art can move people whether or not they understand the underlying method. This just speaks to the depth and richness of music — and nature — and how both can be appreciated and experienced in a multitude of ways; and the most engaging musical experiences to me are those that work on multiple levels.

EM: We have a shared lineage in our mentor Harvey Sollberger. I’d like to learn more about your mentors.

JK: It’s interesting that we both have Harvey as a mentor, but within two different worlds! I first met Harvey when he was a guest artist at UC San Diego during my first year in the masters program there, back in 1985. I got along with him immediately, and was inspired by his energy, passion, and ideas, and the fact that he is such a versatile musician (also a conductor, of course, as well as a flutist and composer). Even though I had just started at UCSD, I decided then that I wanted to work with Harvey for my doctorate at Indiana University, which I eventually did. While at IU, I also had the pleasure of playing bassoon and contrabassoon in the New Music Ensemble there, which Harvey directed, and served as assistant director of that ensemble for a time. To this day, I consider Harvey to be one of my good friends and a very important role model. When Harvey left IU (to teach at UCSD, ironically!) in 1990, I finished my studies with Claude Baker, who was also an excellent mentor, and quite different from Harvey in his approach. Backtracking a bit, I should also mention that at UCSD, my major professor was Robert Erickson, whom I had the good fortune to work with during the last few years of his tenure there; however, I would be remiss if I did not mention another important UCSD mentor of mine, Roger Reynolds. I only had the opportunity to study with Roger for 10 weeks (during my first year in the program, when the new graduate composers were required to rotate faculty studios throughout the year); but In hindsight, those were probably the most critical ten weeks in my artistic development, as I credit Roger with setting me on my future trajectory as a composer.

EM: You are a great advisor to students. Do you have any general advice to practitioners and advocates of new music? Audiences?

JK: I think performers, composers, and other devotees of new music have an obligation to build audiences by creating opportunities for interesting and challenging programs, as well as providing listeners with the proper tools to appreciate unfamiliar music through various types of audience outreach. With so many traditional ensembles dependent on ticket sales and filling concert halls in order to survive, a lot of the contemporary repertoire has been watered down by mediocre music that has been commissioned and programmed in an effort to pander to their patrons — which I think is an insult to both the artists and the audience. Composers and performers have an obligation to meet the audience halfway in order to raise their awareness and create an environment conducive to more demanding music. To this end, performers should create opportunities to share their insights as interpreters, demonstrating musical passages to help guide listeners; composers should do the same by providing insights on the creative process, thus enhancing the listeners’ experience and elevating what we can expect from our audiences. I have heard some composers claim with a tinge of haughtiness that “the music should speak for itself,” that it is somehow a weakness of the work or the composer to explain one’s compositional process to an audience. I think this is a cop out — a lazy excuse not to engage with an audience and allow them to experience one’s work on a deeper level. If it enriches the experience, why not provide the listener with these additional insights?

Maintaining one’s integrity as an artist can be a real challenge if one wants to succeed in the current musical environment. With that in mind, there are a couple of quotes that are worth referencing here, and which touch upon my own philosophy as a composer. The first is from Frank Zappa, who once said: “I [compose] to amuse myself. If I like it, I release it. If somebody else likes it, that’s a bonus.” The second quote is by Steven Stucky, from his article “Listening to Contemporary Music”: “…a composer’s duty is not to any particular listener of any particular imagined audience: a composer’s duty is to the work itself.” I consider it a luxury to have a university teaching position, which frees me up to do the things that truly interest me as a composer, and not to depend on accommodating commissioning bodies, ensemble boards, and marketing departments. That may sound a little selfish, I suppose, but it is also liberating to be able to take risks and push my own limits without concern for the financial consequences. And hopefully, the work I create will be of interest to a few others along the way.

trailblazer: Alyce Santoro


Alyce Santoro is an amazing West Texas artist. I had the pleasure of collaborating with her last year, when we premiered Unset in Marfa, Texas (one year ago today!). She is an inspiring creative force, and I am delighted she consented to an interview.

EM: How did you become interested in playing new music?

AS: I think my interest in playing new music must have begun with an early fascination for listening to the out-of-the-ordinary. I was fortunate to have been raised by parents who, while not musicians themselves, were very earnest listeners with eclectic tastes. Early on, I recall being exposed to Babatunde Olatunji, Ravi Shankar, and Oregon on vinyl records. In the New York metropolitan area we had access to incredible radio…in the mid-1980s I remember hearing Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Meredith Monk, and Laurie Anderson on WNYC’s New Sounds with John Schaefer. It was Laurie Anderson’s tape bow violin that inspired me to put an electric pick-up in my flute at age 15 or 16. At that time a group of misfit friends and I formed an experimental/improv/post-punk group…this was an extremely formative time for me, though we had no idea what we were doing, or where we could find guidance for our nascent interests in new and experimental music. Though I’d been playing the flute quite avidly as a young person, it seemed to me that the only options open to a flutist on the college level would be a strict study of classical music…which wasn’t really my interest. Morton Feldman and SUNY Buffalo, or music programs at places like Hampshire or Oberlin were just not on my radar.  Instead I decided to study science as an undergraduate. After finishing a biology degree (with bioacoustics, sound, and music mixed in whenever possible), I went on to pursue a degree in scientific illustration. Though much of my current artwork has a visual bent – inspired in many ways by science – sound and music have always been part of the mix.

EM: You presented works of John Cage in Marfa a few years ago. What was the response?

AS: In 2012 my then-partner/now-husband composer/guitarist Julian Mock and I, with the help of a couple of friends, put together a program for John Cage’s 100th birthday. We presented it at the wonderful Marfa Book Company. For a town with a population of less than 2,000, we felt it was very well-received! Aside from the community performance of 4’33”, in which about 15 local musicians participated, the packed house seemed to enjoy the Improvisation for Amplified Cactus (regionally appropriate!), Pauline Oliveros’ Tuning Meditation, and several other works on the program. We definitely got the feeling that, while most attendees were at least somewhat familiar with Cage, some were being newly exposed. As part of the event, Marfa Public Radio featured a Cage special earlier in the day. All-in-all, we felt that Cage had been well-feted in rural West Texas!

EM: Your work ranges from theory to performance to instrument design to textile design, and I’m leaving out plenty. How would you describe the common thread that binds these varied directions?

AS: In general – no matter what medium I’m using – I’m looking for ways to highlight the interconnectedness of all things – disciplines, peoples, geographies, etc. I think of nearly everything I make as a collage…whether it’s a visual collage or a collage of sound, I am often weaving together seemingly-disparate elements as part of a kind of “delicate empiricist” (Goethe used this expression to describe science that allows for the qualitative in addition to the quantitative) approach to exploration into the Grand Unification Theory.

EM: Having left New York City for a relatively remote mountain town in Texas, you’ve maintained connections in a variety of ways. What have you found to be the most effective ways of staying connected to your artistic community? Do you feel more or less isolated than when you were in New York?

AS: I think of my website  as a virtual studio, gallery, cabinet of curiosities, and archive. It’s important to me that anyone with a connection to the internet can freely access the information and ideas behind the work. In many cases, the pieces I make are ways of illustrating concepts…the ideas, to me, are often more important than the resulting artifacts. I’m grateful that these intangible elements can be shared and “owned” by anyone who comes in contact with them.

I never really expected or wanted to be a web designer or social media maven…but, for a creative practitioner who lives in a remote place and yet wishes to make work that is accessible, I find these skills essential. I use FacebookTwitter, and am just getting started on Instagram. I also belong to several email lists for professional discourse related to the intersections of art, science, and ecology.

I also occasionally attend residency programs (Blue Mountain Center is one of my favorites) and conferences related to my fields of interest (for example, ISEA 2012 and New Music Gathering 2016).

Though I sometimes long for closer, more consistent proximity to fellow artists and receptive audiences, the environment in which I live has become so integral to my work that I hesitate to be away from it for any length of time. I think both urban and rural experiences can be isolating and aggregating in different ways…for me, alternating phases of each would be ideal.

EM: You’ve designed a new set of tools for cognition and practice of diatonic theory. Do you feel that a change is needed in the way music is taught? How do your materials fit into your ideal approach to teaching music?

AS: As a flute player without advanced training in music theory, the Tonal Relativity project came out of my own desire to become more fluent in modality. I am always seeking to improve my skills as an improvisor. Over the years I’ve intermittently set out to study the modes, always coming away feeling like I wasn’t quite getting the big picture. Early last year I was determined to fully grasp the modes once and for all. I sat down with a 3-by-5 card and a pencil to make myself a kind of “cheat sheet”…I mapped the Modes of the Major Scale using shapes…squares for whole steps, and triangles for half steps. When I did this, a pattern was revealed that suddenly helped me to understand the modes as a holistic system.

Here is the original doodle on a 3-by-5 card that led to the development of the Tonal Relativity project:

I am no expert on the way music is taught, but I think the same is true in almost any discipline: gaining a full, functional understanding of a subject tends, in the long run, to produce far richer and more interesting results than, say, rote memorization. As a scientific illustrator, I am interested in figuring out ways to convey complex information efficiently. For me, the traditional methods of learning the modes weren’t clicking. I hope others – teachers, students, and independent practitioners alike – may find the Tonal Relativity project as useful as I am finding it!

EM: What would be your ideal artistic venture right now, and its ideal audience?

AS: I’m extremely interested in improvised music and interdisciplinary collaboration. With all that’s going on in the world, I feel there is much to be gleaned from the successes and failures of mid-20th century experimental communities like Black Mountain College, the Pulsa Group, and the Creative Music Studio. I have facilitated several “happenings” inspired by these collectives under the auspices of the Synergetic Omni-Solution, the Dialectic Revival, and the Obvious International. These events have, thus far, not been particularly music-oriented. My ideal now would be to facilitate or participate in kind of residency program in which listening, atmospheric phenomenology, and the exploration of musical/sonic ideas would be the central focus.

EM: What is on your music stand? Where will you next be playing?

AS: At the moment my stand is laden with theory books, staff paper, the Mode Charts, some compositions by my husband Julian Mock, and a stack of 3-by-5 cards with various musical ideas scrawled on them…these are frameworks for improvisations that Julian and I are working on collaboratively. We have been incorporating some of the modal ideas into partly composed, partly improvisational dialogs between the flute and guitar. I’ve got an exhibition coming up in spring 2017 at a gallery in Albuquerque in which the Tonal Relativity project will figure largely…we don’t have any concrete plans as yet, but these sound pieces will definitely be part of it!


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.





Trailblazers: Harvey Sollberger

I am very pleased to share this interview with my mentor Harvey Sollberger (pictured above, with me and Shannon Wettstein).

EM:  How do you know when you are on the right path, doing the music you ought to be doing?

HS: I imagine that people have a lot of different criteria for answering that question. For me, finding the answer to it wasn’t a matter of sitting down and thinking about it. I suppose that it’s the sort of thing that “when you see it, you know it.” Sort of like falling in love. When we fall in love most of us don’t sit down and rationally calculate whether we should or whether it’s convenient or whether this is the right time, etc., etc. (such thinking probably comes later); we’re just, for better or worse, swept away. For me, finding the music that I most loved to play involved a kind of gut recognition. It spoke to me more than other music, it challenged me more and on more levels than other music, and offered correspondingly greater spiritual and existential rewards. It wasn’t an easy road nor was it a commonly-traveled road (at least not in those days). It was just what I felt I had to do if I was to remain a musician.

EM: As a performer and presenter of new music, what are you most satisfied with having accomplished?

HS: Probably my “greatest” accomplishment – if it is an accomplishment and if it is great – was in bringing a new sort of ethic to the performance of contemporary music. The standard for performing challenging new music was very low when I started out in the 1950s and 1960s. The work I did in New York City with my colleagues at the Group for Contemporary Music helped to set new and higher performance standards. It also proved that what some people were calling “impossible” was both playable and transformative in its excitement when performed with careful preparation and full commitment. One example: the composer, Milton Babbitt, wrote his beautiful, Mozartean “Composition for Four Instruments” in 1948. A recording of it was published in 1957; the performers were “big names.” Thing was, they played it loosely and sloppily and it sounded terrible. When my friends and I at the Group performed it in 1963, Milton said, “I’m hearing this piece for the first time. This is how it should sound.” Imagine a composer of the stature of Milton having to wait 15 years to hear a good performance of his music! This is what I dedicated myself to from the beginning, and for me it is a matter of honor, truth, and ethics. If you don’t care enough to dedicate yourself FULLY AND WITHOUT COMPROMISE to performing a piece of music as well as you possibly can, DON’T DO IT. And if you do, WORK YOUR TAIL OFF!

EM: As a composer and performer, how do you see the role of humor in new music? How can it best be used to strengthen rather than undercut the experience of new music?

HS: There is certainly room for humor – whatever that is and however it’s to be achieved – in new music. There’s not one way to go about it, and one size – not even “wan” size – doesn’t fit all. If one’s inclined in that direction, as I sometimes am, the question is how to project it by means of the musical means and language you have at your disposal. It seems to me that regardless of the musical language employed – in other words, this works as much for Stravinsky as for Haydn – humor is often projected through creating expectation in your music and then either delaying the arrival of what’s expected or subverting the expectation completely by presenting – often suddenly – something that’s totally UNEXPECTED. In other words: TIMING. The difference between a successful comedian and one who’s not is often just that, timing. And of course, as performers we have to be sufficiently savvy to understand or intuit what’s going on and make sure it comes off as effectively as possible by means of our timing and musical joke or story-telling skills.

EM: What is the best venue you’ve performed in, and why? What is the worst, and why?

HS: Nice question. I’m inclined to be a little sentimental and say that the best place in which I’ve ever performed was McMillin Theatre at Columbia University in New York City. It’s still there, just called Kathryn Bache Miller Theater now because the money-raising folks at Columbia found out they could sell the name for beaucoup bucks. But it’s still McMillin to me. That’s where we gave our first nine years of Group concerts, 1962-1971. It was a drab, dingy, dusty hall with torn shredded curtains flanking the stage and a poor abused Steinway piano onto which some resourceful graffiti artist had inscribed “PUSSY” with a sharp object. Oh, and the seats were uncomfortable. Edgard Varese came to our concerts at McMillin from the beginning until he died a few years later. He said he liked our concert venue because of (pardon my French) “cette aire de poverte’.

Okay, and what was the worst? Probably the lobby or reception area of the Indianapolis Museum of Art where my Indiana University New Music Ensemble students and I performed one Sunday afternoon in 1986. Not “bad” acoustics; just no acoustics. And the space was full of families loaded down with kids coming in and going out who hadn’t been informed there was a concert going on. You would have had to have the aesthetic of a John Cage to have enjoyed the resultant Klang and Din; and John would probably have enjoyed the crowd noise more than the music. Or maybe not.

EM: If you could tell a classical music lover one thing before a concert, what would it be?

HS: I’d probably tell them to be willing to jettison some of the expectations they have concerning “classical music.” Their background might be useful to them in certain respects, but in others it might put them at a disadvantage. I like to ask people to “clear” their minds and to basically shut-off that little voice in us that’s usually constantly chattering-away as we listen to music (“wow, that was loud, mm, doesn’t the violinist’s arm ever get tired? yipes, wish I’d used the restroom during intermission, etc., etc.”) I’d say something like, “Clear your mind, and let the sounds play on your perception the way the colors and images of a film ‘play’ over the surface of a movie screen; hold-off making comments or value or evaluative judgements for now: just ‘be there’ and take it in. Follow the sound’s behavior: when it scrunches together, when it goes to extremes, when it moves haltingly in fits and starts. Absorb all these things in the way that a reed which pushes through to the surface of a pond is ‘operated’ on by the wind, the water’s motion, a tadpole brushing by, etc. Give yourself over to that experience and see what happens. Nothing is guaranteed because purchasing a ticket to a musical performance is not like buying a mixer at Walmart. It’s a little more like going to your local casino. Bon chance!”

EM: What would you like to see in the culture of American new music to move forward and thrive?

HS: That’s out of my hands now. My gas tank is almost empty. And what do you mean by “move forward and thrive?” In some ways it seems to be doing that more so than at any other time I can remember if you measure moving forward and thriving in terms of the amount of activity going on, the number of people involved, the number of new ensembles on the scene, and an extended aesthetic menu that offers something for everyone. And yet I remember Schoenberg’s dictum: “If it’s art it’s not for everyone; if it’s for everyone it’s not art.” Holy cow, what a snobbishly elitist (shame!) thing to say. And yet, and yet… them’s my roots, gosh darn it. And I must here say a word for what’s not at the center of the “action,” for what’s marginal and liminal, what’s said in a small voice and not through a megaphone. New music’s “salvation” lies not in becoming like rock and roll or in acquiring rock’s “energy” – not my words, other people say things like this and long may they wave it’s sure a free country.

In these my “sunset years,” I find my activities revolving more and more around performing the few very best solo flute pieces I’ve encountered through a lifetime of playing and study (or at least some of them). One of my favorites is called “Ein Hauch von Unzeit I” – which I translate (pardon my German) as “A Breath from What’s Out of Season” – or perhaps the last word of the title should be “Eternity,” I’m not sure. Huber has subtitled the piece as (pardon my French) a “Plainte sur la perte de la reflexion musicale” which he translates as (pardon his English) “a complaint over the loss of musical reflection.” He wrote “Ein Hauch…” in 1972, and I think that there’s even less musical reflection today than there was then. I like the final sentence of his program note for the piece, too: “a piece for patience, for meditation, for freedom from rigidly set schemes.” As new music becomes cool, hip, and popular its overall health and vigor might well benefit from a contemplation of the downside of “being for everyone,” as democratic as that may seem.



Many things coming up:

Sounds Modern playing Brown and Feldman at the Dallas Museum of Art Late Night March 18 at 7pm. Many thanks to the Earle Brown Music Foundation for making this event possible.

Voices of Change on March 20, at 3 pm, in Dallas, performing a varied program.

National Student Electro-Acoustic Event in Norman, OK, March 25-26. Andrew May and I will give a pre-festival concert there, performing interactive works by May, Paul Wilson, and Russell Pinkston.

Nova has a concert on April 12 in Denton UNT’s Voertman Hall, 8 pm. Will feature works of Earle Brown, John Harbison, Kaija Saariaho, Franco Donatoni, with a premiere by Ermir Bejo.

Looking ahead to the end of April, the FW Opera Festival will feature new operas JFK and Buried Alive-Embedded.

Also at the end of April, Soundings will present works by Lee Hyla and Travis LaPlante, in Dallas at the Nasher.

Sounds Modern celebrates the Frank Stella retrospective on May 21, 2 pm, at the FW Modern: works by Donatoni, Clementi, Sciarrino, and others.

In memoriam

I am very sad to learn the news of Pierre Boulez’s death yesterday. Paul’s Griffith’s obituary is here.

I feel very fortunate to have worked with him, both as a conductor and a composer. I very much appreciated his precision, combined with sensitivity. Watching him conduct in person, and attending his masterclasses, also inspired me.

He asserted that to change a system, one must try from within the system. While his tenure at the NY Philharmonic left little permanent change, I hope that his other important work – IRCAM, for example, will leave a legacy.