Category Archives: musings about music

notation, interpretation

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.

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.

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?


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.