The end

In case you hadn't noticed, my blogging has ceased. I'm tired of throwing out ideas into the seething mass of internet information, seeing no change, interactive little, and not even knowing if any change is being affected. I still get irritated, worked up, and generally feel the need to yell my opinion, but it all feels impotent now.

This was further pushed by listening to a brief amount of NPR this morning. These people have their opinions heard. Why? They are not special, the same old people spouting the same song and dance. We give praise to the blessed few that achieve success, and then gloss over the fact that they have agents and marketing professionals working for them. We say "learn from X industry" without ever bothering to analyze that industry, nor even our own. No, we're just to take arbitrary ideas from the most successful and that will magically save everything. Look to those that succeed, and take from them, while never bothering to analyze why the initiative worked locally, and will fail in your location.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                     This rant is over, as are future rants. There's really no point. I've tried at create change through my actions as well as through my blog. The blog is obviously ineffective and not worth the time. Honestly, I'm not sure I, alone or with others, can create change in music.

I have ideas on how to create change in music, to create a wider community in music, to get over the cult of the ego, to create experiences that people can enjoy, to engineer concerts meant for a variety of locations and audiences. Talking about it on here does nothing. The ideas are philosophical, experimental, ideological.

My blog doesn't do anything toward those goals, whether I write cultural commentary, reviews, advice, or discussions of my own issues. No community is built around it. The only comments are spam, and while I do engage in thoughtful conversations, it is usually with the same couple people...and I don't need to bother with a blog to have those conversations. I had one nice viral bit of snark, and wasn't really able to capitalize past that. Whether that is my own mistake (very possible), or shows a prevailing attitude in music and online journalism, it doesn't much matter.

So the blog has halted, at least for the time being. The energy will be focused on local and national change through something more active, on creating and performing music, or on leaving academia (and possibly music). I will probably continue to comment on other blogs, Facebook, articles, and all over. And I will undoubtedly be lured back in a blind rage at some point. I almost was this past weekend after watching a series of orchestra readings. But, no. Good luck to all this persevering through. We can talk about all these ideas over beer, or maybe online.

Rest now wtfisjohnsopera.


Classical Musicians Should Think More Like Pop Musicians

This is a take on this headline. I won't bother going through all the misinformation in this--from claiming for profits don't have boards and aren't beholden to other people's money, to being a for profit meaning you can't get grants, to all the strange and ignorant ideas of what pop musicians do.

So, let me approach this another way, from my experience as an audio engineer working with lots of groups, freelancing in a studio/rehearsal space, and actually having a clue about the pop music industry.

Classical musicians analyze their music and performance endlessly. Really good musicians stop analyzing the moment they step on stage to perform. Analysis is a part of practice, and the pursuit of perfection has to do with creating unconscious effort. Ensembles practice together until they know the music stone cold.

Pop musicians do the same thing. Have you ever known a serious guitarist in a band? Has his/her fingers ever stopped moving? Is there always a guitar in his/her hands? What about drummers constantly tapping, working through rhythms, practicing their parts?

Good pop musicians practice constantly. Yes, they practice differently. The difference is dictate heavily by the repertoire. They don't have to ask "What was the composer thinking?" because they probably wrote the parts. Or they are sessions musicians and aren't paid to think of nuance. Of course, neither are symphony or pit musicians--the interpretation is dictated by the conductor. This is of course, practical--having a unified artistic message is the most clear.

As for rehearsal time, well, As I said I freelanced in a studio/rehearsal space. I'd go in usually when big name acts were coming through and renting the space. Because, guess what, even famous bands still practice. I remember when Rev Theory came through Kansas City and rented the space. It was pretty great just chatting with the band and their engineer. The guitar player was stoked because he had rented one of Trent Reznor's guitars for the tour. They rehearsed all day one day, and then most of a second before playing the show the evening of the second day. Now, this group I think only peaked around 20 or so with a single, probably the one below. And they only put in 2 days of practice while on tour

The article brings up that pop musicians search less for perfection, that wrong is accepted, and there's a rawness to the music.

First off, these guys have never been in a studio working on an album with a pop group have they? Not in search of perfection? Here's a link to a nice article talking about recording a band, and going against the "do a million takes" idea. But let's put it in context; doing multiple takes is normal. Doing repeated takes until "you get it perfect" is normal. A major band when going into the studio often spends a month or more just doing the tracking. Here's a great article talking about the time and cost of putting together an album. There are major expectations on the sound of an album, and to do that, you have to be damn good. You can't fix everything in mixing and mastering. I've mastered a couple albums, and in each, while the recording was good, there were things I noticed that could not be fixed at my stage. The technology isn't there to make a recording perfect from a 75% accurate show. The technology is there to make 98% close to 100% (as long as you don't mind some formants getting a little iffy).

Ivan Trevino makes one great point about how classical musicians don't play enough. But he seems to ignore a big point about what happens when you start playing every night--you improve. Instead of rehearsing every night, you're playing gigs. The mentality changes, the way you play changes. It's not that pop groups aren't pushing for perfection, they've just trained themselves not to show it onstage.

I'm reminded of a speech told to me in jazz band by my professor, Randy Salman. He said "Don't show you missed a not. No one out there knows you missed a note. Just play the next one." Sage advice. Great pop groups do exactly that. They come on stage confident of their abilities--they've practiced and played the same songs repeatedly. They should be confident! And when there is a flub, usually it is completely forgotten.

Unless it's bad. Then the show goes to hell. There were ideas of what happened--was Scott Stapp drunk, high, what was happening? He said he was on prednisone for nodules on his throat. But what definitely happened is a lot of pissed off fans asked for their money back, sued the band, horrid reviews followed, and then Creed broke up shortly after the tour. So, wait, they don't care about perfection? They care about raw performances? And the audience doesn't notice? Bull...

No, you better be perfect. You better sound like your recording. And when you start mixing and matching studio techniques with live sets, well...There's still a human element. People don't want to think you're cheating. If you can do it in the studio, you better be able to do it on stage. Go to a metal show and watch the guitarists shred and tell me they don't think about all the music and practice to perfection. And plenty of pop musicians think heavily about the music--I know Anders Bjorler does.

The next whole section of this article is just purely incorrect. I don't know who taught Ivan Trevino business, but that teacher should be fired, or at least go back and give him F's for everything. Rather than dissect how horribly incorrect Trevino is about a number topics, from for profits not having boards of directors (HA!) to an odd statement like:
"We don't want a business dependent on other people's money. We want to be able to fund our own business through concert fees, album sales, and other streams of profit-based income, all centred around our fan-base.
If we do need extra income for a special project, we'll call on our fans for help. For example, we recently raised $50,000 through Kickstarter to do a public school music education tour around the US.
which just reeks of ignorance--sorry, you're still dependent on other people's money. And for some reason, I guess Trevino assumes donors to non-profits aren't fans?

And then the bit about being a for-profit means not applying for grants. Factually incorrect. Many grants require you to be incorporated as an artist, and this is, the majority of the time, for-profit. I can't name an artist who, on his/her own, is a non-profit. Now, for larger grant giving institutions, such as money coming from state and national government, yes, you have to be a non-profit. But individual artist grants, chamber music grants, etc. that are not provided by state-funds, that's not true. Why not actually look at the pros and cons of for vs. non profit? One thing to consider is the idea of "return of dividends." If you're seeking private funding (like crowd-funding sites), you are actually beholden to your customers. If you do not produce exactly what was advertised, they can ask for their money back or sue you. If they give you money, they expect a return on investment--recordings, concerts, etc. And if you don't provide what they want, they are gone. A non-profit the return is "social or cultural capital." That means the donors aren't looking for a specific return, such as a concert, but instead are expecting you to continue to serve your mission in a way that benefits society. You are not beholden to any of the donors to provide specific returns, though if they feel you aren't serving the community, donations could easily end. Many non-profits use a mixture of for and non profit ideas--they sell advertising, which businesses expect will provide immediate dividends. The product being sold isn't the performance, that performance is how you market selling advertising--"We will reach X number of people based on projections." That's a for-profit strategy in a non-profit set-up. But let's not get bogged down in how business actually works.

No, here's the core of the problem with almost all of Trevino's discussion about business: He's comparing a four person chamber ensemble to perception on how an incredibly large non-profit corporation are run. He's not comparing what Break of Reality does to eighth blackbird or JACK quartet. Why doesn't he compare what he does to eighth blackbird. They're incorporated as a non-profit, and I'm 98% sure no one tells them what program to do. Perhaps I should write them an email and ask.

This is the major problem for what Trevino is putting out there. His complaints aren't even about chamber groups, they're about symphonies. Symphonies have issues. And they are not run the same way as a smaller group. For a look outside music, why not examine community theaters. The Association for American Community Theaters has a nice set of tutorials for starting up a community theater. I've worked in a few of these, and let me spill a secret--most boards in small non-profits are made up of the people working in the non-profit. Yes, you read that correctly. When Tipton Community Theater started, the board was comprised of members who were also incredibly active in the creation of shows. They were the original directors, actors, and tech crew. Even as they have grown to a nice little theater able to mount a regular season (for, what, 20 years now?), the board is still made up of actors, directors, and tech people. The only professional staff used for the longest time was the business manager, and even now their head grant writer donates her time (disclosure, it's my mother, so I know). And you'll notice with eighth blackbird that all the members are on the board, along with a selection of other people (it's at the bottom of the page). If you tab over to the advisory board, you'll see some major names in music--it's almost as if they've surrounded themselves with people that will help them achieve their goals as an ensemble, not weighted themselves down with a board that will dictate their actions.

The dynamics of a small non-profit are wildly different than what Trevino seems to imagine. He's somehow equated non-profit with massive scale operation. This is a regular problem with people discussion music business. It's astounding to me that such incorrect rhetoric is so rampant.

The final section is entitled "No Fear." Trevino pushes for classical musicians to not have fear, and that's how you get booked. You just go into the club and say "Hey, book me!" You make a phone call and, boom, you're at Carnegie Hall! Perhaps he's right in that classical musicians don't have that mindset. I certainly don't. I dislike cold calling people. I remember getting offered a job doing cold call sales of coupon books. The commission wasn't great, you had to drive yourself, and you could be anywhere from New Brunswick to Wilmington, Atlantic City to Harrisburg. I needed a job, so I did a ride along. The basic idea was you went to businesses, preferably during non-peak hours (like a bar at 1pm), and tried to sell the coupon books to managers so that they'd give them away as prizes or incentives. For me, it was nerve-wracking, going business to business, trying to get people interested in buying the item.

I learned a few things doing this. First, I wasn't cut out for cold call sales. It was the selling that was the issue--I actually saved the skin of the guy I was riding along with just as he was about to get screwed by an incredibly shrewd older manager. It was just approaching someone who didn't care about what I did that was the problem. Second, I learned how horribly inefficient this model is. We beat the streets just going to random places. Most of the time we struck out. It's why most businesses don't do this.

And it's a bad way to do business as a band. I don't know any friends that got booked by just walking into a bar, handing a CD to the manager on duty, and saying "Book me!" Many regular venues have booking agents that handle everything. There's a single manager the deals with every booking request. Venues also usually have online booking forms--who are you, your contact, links to music, etc.

These forms are your first hurdle. Hardly anyone gets booked through these channels either. The local scene is about finding out who does the booking. The best way to do that is to get yourself into the local scene. Talk to other bands, become friends with them, go to their shows, and build a community. This is fairly normal in local pop scenes. Bands then share contacts; if your friends in another band got booked at a club, and they like what you do, they know how to hook you up. You find the booking agent, not usually from just looking online, but by going to the club during shows. You'll know him/her because of how the bands or tech guys treat him/her. Make the connection, chat with him, buy him drinks. Trust me, he knows the hustle. Maybe give him a CD, but be prepared for him to throw it away. Even better get his business car. Now you have his REAL number, not the email on the site, or the number that just rings the bar. For bigger venues, having an agent and a manager really help.

Wait, did Trevino mention his group has had a manager? And an agent? Hold on a second...that means he's not even doing the booking anymore. Oh, look, they have a professional booking agency and a professional PR group. Their hustle is finished. Once you reach that point, you've got a lot made.

This is not to denigrate the group--it takes a helluva lot of hard work to get to this point. To get an agent interested in you isn't easy. Check out this great write-up on getting an agent from New York Conservatory for Dramatic Arts. Agents are your doorway into a much larger world. They find your opportunities and make contacts you don't have a chance at making. Here's a great tid-bit:

It used to be that young actors did “mailings”  -- sending headshots, resumes and cover letters to agencies “cold”; that is, with no contacts. Today that’s like throwing your headshots directly into the trash.
Here's some great advice on when, how, and why to get an agent as a writer. But what about music?

There are tons of different takes on this. One I go back to is by Saphreem A. King because he pulls no punches. Here's another from Music Think Tank. Here's a nice one by Jeff Rabhan for Reverbnation. And finally some more good advice.

Here's the thing, obviously Break of Reality were already really good at what they were doing. If not, their first manager never would have dropped in his card. But at the same time, there's a lot of luck involved--they were busking in Central Park, like thousands of others do, and just happened to have that happened. That's not the hustle. Yes, they were prepared to call the person, to make the leap. They obviously worked their butts off to be fantastic players. Without all of that, they never would have been noticed. But it's also incredibly abnormal. Just like it's abnormal to walk into a bar and say "Book me!" and get a gig.

More than that, it's horribly disingenuous to put out a "this is how to be successful" and focus not on the path they took, but on the finished product. So, let's revisit, really, what thinking like a rock band is, what really set this group up for success.

  • Practice a lot, and play a lot. Practice for perfection, but don't sweat it in a performance. But practice, practice, practice, like the stereotypical guitar player whose fingers never stop moving.
  • Be ready to jump at any opportunity--be it a manager dropping in his business card, a buddy giving you the name of a booking agent for a bar, or opening up for a major touring group
  • Market your unique product--what are you doing different musically? Push those differences. Make yourself standout
  • Do all the normal business things: get a website up; put together a professional recording (not a demo of a live concert, but a professional studio recording); get professional photos; and get very nice looking videos.
  • Create a huge network. I cannot stress this enough. Find people who know people who can put you on the path. Use those connections.
Want to know the crazy part about that list?

I could say the same thing for being a composer. But that's for another post.


Exactitude of language...

...is incredibly important. If you follow this blog, you've probably seen one of my trends over the past year is to critique the language used by critics, and to get around their troublesome use of words by finding definitions. These definitions are sometimes literal, sometimes societal, and usually a created through combining the two. This gets to a certain sticky point (and one debated by philosophers extensively): meaning.

   What does a word mean? From where does the meaning come? Is language innate, passed along genetically, and only nuance is given during learning phases--an incredible oversimplification of Chomsky, barely comparable to his thoughts. Meaning in words can be tricky, and that's why philosophers and scientists define their terms.

    When we get into the meaning of music, things can be even stickier. There are many camps debating meaning in music, from ascribing a narrative (or looking for inner narratives) to purely formal approaches. I'm a sucker for a story, and in the past looked at the idea of storytelling in various mediums. I've talked about meaning in music in relation to politics, and that is an ongoing area of study and thought for me. I've even gone so far as to define and defend experimentalism, especially in the collegiate experience.

    And now I find my fingers tapping the keyboard again in search of a definition.

     A little less than 2 weeks ago, I posed a question on Facebook: what makes music (ir)relevant? The responses were of course varied, and from multiple people. Of course my friend Marek chimed in with "inasmuch as relevance implies pertinence, that question seems, like, incredibly relativistic." And that's the rub isn't it?

    The word relevant keeps being used in connection to music. Groups should be performing music that is relevant to today's younger generation. This is often distilled down into triadically based, beat oriented, non-traditionally structured, but traditional in form pieces; music that relates to or is derived from popular genres, which often share these incredibly general and borderline meaningless aspects.

    In this sense, the word relevant means "related to a known popular quantity." Or possibly "closely connected to something people already like." This seems to sprout from a definition from the 1960s when relevance became a buzzword--relevance at this point was related to ideas of social concern.

   In education, we often see the world used in conjunction with choosing majors. The humanities are under attack as being irrelevant. The Daily Beast compiled a list of "useless" degrees, and the fine arts were up there in the #1 slot. This of course set of a slew of "Oh no they didn't!" type responses. There have been defenses for humanities degrees, ranging from a mother defending her daughter's work, to Brown University's President making an impassioned argument for the financial importance of humanity degrees.

  Relevance in all these cases is tied directly to economics. Are humanities and fine arts (and music) degrees going the help students make lots of money?

  So, what does Greg Sandow mean when he talks about relevance? It's been a head-scratcher for me. Most of the time it seems like he means "music that is related, in some fashion, to music that people already like." His latest post he praised a concert of Nico Muhly and Pekka Kuusisto for their originality and fresh approach. I was perplexed at first, because he addressed Muhly's music as being "relevant," the format as being "personal" and the performers not being "high priests." I'm still sitting here the next day confused.

   Has Mr. Sandow never been to a new music concert outside of possibly the largest sanctioned halls? Has he never caught a concert by local NYC groups like Ensemble Signal, Talea, Ensemble Moto Perpetuo, Talujon, The Curiosity Cabinet, or any of the hundred other groups? He most certainly never caught my short-lived group, dfe, in concert when we played at the Yippie Museum in fall of '08 with a program about as varied as we could conceive (pulling from all three of his groups, plus an amazing rendition of "Twinkle Twinkle" by me on violin as we prepped another piece). I guess he hasn't noticed that the performers wear a wide assortment of clothing, performances happen at all sorts of spaces, and that, generally, contemporary chamber concerts have been exactly what he has described wanting them to be for...well...

    I was more or less instructed on how to give these concerts when I started my Masters in '07. By that point, they were incredibly old news, with my professor, Doug Cohen, telling me he had done them in the '80s.

  Ok, so where's the relevance. What makes this somewhat traditional structure so relevant. And yes, I mean traditional because as far as I can easily tell, dates back in the US at least to the 1960s with Phillip Glass' ensemble and the various loft concerts put on by Cage and Co...of course ignoring salon traditions, burlesque, and minstrelsy shows which did all the same things. (the smokers cough is getting better, but it seems to pop up in conversations like this...). I'm starting to feel like I'm spinning my tires--we're dealing with preconceptions, we're definitely dealing with a few critics obvious biases, and we're ignoring all the underlying economic questions behind low attendance. If it was just the music, a company like Live Nation, that runs a huge amount of concert venues, should be doing quite well catering to audiences with popular music. But that's not the case.

  But back to relevance. What makes music relevant? What makes music, to follow a more Webster definition, "closely connected or appropriate to the matter at hand?" In the discussion of what a relevant degree is, the "matter at hand" is purely economic. So, what is the matter at hand for music?

   For Sandow, and many others, it is also economic. The matter at hand is "how do we sell more tickets to a younger generation." Therefore, any music that they perceive to not sell tickets is irrelevant. Which means exactly what Sandow says the matter isn't is exactly what the matter is--by relevancy he means familiarity.

    What do I mean then? Sandow claims that it's not about familiarity, familiarity to a certain culture. By his estimation we should look at what the widest amount of people consume culturally, analyze the music, and program (or create) music using these ideas. I've already said in my post about experimentalism that this is backwords. By taking a stance of "this is what people like right now," we lose sight of what people may like the future. It's not to say we know what people like, but to write in a way that reflects only data received after the fact means we are perpetually writing behind. Think about that for a second...

    Let's say we do a survey of a possible target audience--for me, that might mean 21-30 year olds, both genders, all races, living in the Indianapolis area. I'd like the data parsed by gender, race, economic standing, specific neighborhood, etc. I'm specifically looking at what music people like, what they feel is connected to their culture. I send out two thousand questionnaires, wait around six weeks, get back the questionnaires, and set forth to put in all the data and analyze it. It takes me roughly six to eight weeks to get all the data into the database (and formatted correctly with all the pertinent info in the right places), and then another six to eight weeks to sieve through all the information. All of a sudden, I'm sitting on a minimum of eighteen weeks of work before I can start to figure out programming, which after going through all the info would mean finding the musical terms in that music.

    OR I can head over to the Billboard Experiment and use info from the top 100 as compiled from the 1960s through today and see the type of general data that so many critics drool over. If I use that, well...

    I better be in 4/4, C major, around 120 bpm, four to four and a half minutes in length, and it wouldn't help if people already knew who I was...

    Of course, this misses out on a ton of information. If I go back to my study, I'd quickly see how fragmented the mythical audience is. I would also start to see and hear similarities and differences between the music. The repetitive nature of a rap anthem versus the greater amount of variance in a large indie ensemble (like Polyphonic Spree). I'd see a wide variety of instruments, but also a regular uses of electronics, either to enhance the instruments or as purely electronic sounds.

    I would see the world encapsulated into a small study.

    And that's the problem, isn't it? If we take Marek's quip about relevancy to heart, there's truth. Relevancy is relational, it's always related as a "relevant to what." Sandow's arguments are mostly related to "relevant to selling tickets to a specific cross section of young adults that he has personal knowledge." Compare this to the wide variety of populations in the world, country, state, county, city, neighborhood where the arts are active.

    I end by posing a few questions:

  • How can music, or anything, that is unfamiliar, be (ir)relevant?
  • Is relevancy in an abstract form of art (such as music) tied only to its formal properties? Is it the rhythm, instrumentation, time signatures, use of melody, form, and structure all that is tied to relevancy?
  • To who and how is it relevant? Relevant to what? To selling tickets? To reaching people through a musical experience? Are these the same thing? 
  • Who are we really marketing these concerts to?
  • Why are popular music live companies suffering difficulties, and what can we learn from those? Is just blanket emulation of traditional popular concert styles really going to save classical music?
  • Is it actually a new and different idea? Groups like Classical Revolution and GroupMuse are great, but are they really ground-breaking? Do we have such a short memory to have forgotten that this was a major part of the 1960s art scene in NYC? Or that salon traditions existed in Europe for years, with a large amount of premieres happening in 2 piano versions done in people's houses? 
  • And, most importantly: What are we actually talking about? 
   I'll be honest, there are many times I'm unsure anymore. It seems like we're just all spinning our tires. Sandow has been saying roughly the same things for twenty odd years. I've only spent the last year and change actively blogging in this sphere, and I realize that I'm repeating myself. Look at that first paragraph! It's all self-referential! That is a bad thing

    So why not take a step back, and instead of just continuously pushing a set position, why don't we start looking for questions again? Rather than pushing talking points, why not look at the questions above, and instead of answering with the same tired talking points, why not do some research and take me to task on my ignorance. I admit ignorance to a great many things. 

    What other questions do we need to answer before moving forward? What other words are we just tossing about without ever considering their definition or usage?

     How do we actual find answers rather than flash in the pan popular answers?



Concert attendance, rituals, and all the wrong questions

Something has been bugging me the past few months. People in the "Classical Music Crisis" camp often make a big deal out of the unique nature of what's happening in classical music. What comes out of these problems are answers that are also unique--unique in that they seek to change the artform itself, rather than to address problems in marketing, image, and pricing. In the past, there was much talk over ticket pricing, but that has since died down with a focus instead on kitsch, on creating some sort of buzz by putting in some new product, designed by the masses, for mass consumption, including the experience, rather than focusing on the product (and the evolution of that product naturally, which, btw, includes lots of influences) and finding ways to market more effectively, change the preconceived images, and bring more people into the fold.

There's a focus on the idea of barriers to entry. Particularly, there's a take by Pierre Bourdieu which has to do with the barriers caused by differences in customs, rituals, mannerisms, etc. by different groups of people. There was a blog post in January about the largest barrier this person felt wasn't the ritual aspect, but the specific knowledge of the music that was the problem. It's not knowledge of the ritual itself that is the issue, but the shared vocabulary to discuss the art afterwards. The author cites that talking about art is an important part of the experience, and that is a portion missing. I've blogged about the educational issue before.

If there is an issue with the preconceived idea that specialized knowledge is needed to enjoy a classical concert, then how do we alleviate this issue? We can bolster education through outreach programs, and we can actively work to change the image that specialized knowledge is needed. One of the things I try to work as a musician is how to explain music without needing technical terms. As a composer, every conversation I have with a new acquaintance has the question "What kind of music do you write?" How do I explain this?

During my comprehensive exam, I had to answer area questions submitted by faculty members on my panel. Three of the questions revolved around "elevator pitches," or discusses my music and what I do with different types of individuals. One was "You have five minutes to explain your music to a total stranger with little background in music." Another was "you have ten minutes to explain your music to another musician you've met an a conference." These are two wildly different approaches.

One can easily talk about music without getting into technical terms. I asked the question on Facebook about "what makes music relevant (or irrelevant)?" and in the long string, specialized knowledge was brought into the discussion. If you don't have the knowledge base required, the music becomes irrelevant.

But this leads to a few philosophical questions. First off, it starts down a path of there being a single meaning behind a musical piece. Second, it pushes a sort of agenda--depending on what information is given, different interpretations are achieved. Third, it discounts different styles of listening--formal vs. mimetic listening for one dichotomy.

I've seen the transformation first hand when this barrier is removed for students. In my teaching of music appreciation courses, I always seek to find ways for students to engage with the music, so I try different methods. Sometimes these are formal--I give students an understanding of the form and structure, point things out in a specific music example, then challenge them to listen for similarities in other pieces. This can work. Other times I've had students focus on historical or interpretive aspects. This works especially well with opera. Regularly, I start to see students come around not just to appreciating the music, but to start to understand all that ways that one can appreciate music.

If there's one piece of knowledge that can remove the barrier around needing specific knowledge, it's the knowledge that you don't need any one particular piece of knowledge, but can approach the music personally.

The next bit that confuses me regards marketing issues. I have lots of friends that play in bands of various sizes. Some go on tour with major groups, some flit from band to band, able to keep playing even as one band succumbs to the harsh reality that is the music business. They range in genre from brass players that have played with John Legend to heavy metal bands to jazz trios and any other group you can imagine.

When there's bad turn-out at a show, do you know what they blame first?


They didn't talk to enough people. They didn't get word out to enough of their friends, who didn't get word out to enough of their friends. The marketing group did a terrible job prepping the major tour and there were no adverts on the radio or TV. They only made a dozen posters and must have chosen bad places. Sometimes it gets into bits about a venue not being where people that like that music usually go (hey, surprise, venues cater to specific forms of music), or some other external force comes into light (shit, we booked against eighth blackbird... yeah, that happened. 15 people showed up).

What do we hear in classical music?

The music doesn't reach people. It's irrelevant. The culture of the concert hall is to blame. People feel uncomfortable getting dressed up. I've blogged before about how odd this idea is. I've made comparisons between new music concerts and death metal concerts. Talking to a friend tonight over some great Mexican street food (IN STOCKHOLM!), I came to the realization that, really, only classical musicians talk about music this way (and jazz musicians, which I think is just a symptom of being put into academia). If a death metal concert is not attended well, it's not because death metal is dead. When Kanye West only sold 4,500 tickets at the 18,500 seat Sprint Center in Kansas City, the local critic didn't say that West's music obviously lacked popular appeal and had no connection with the audience. Instead, he linked meager attendance to the various scandals surrounding West at the time. Maybe considering the album the tour featured, Yeezus, only made it up to #37 in the Billboard top 200 for the year, West's popularity could be falling.

But is it the music's popularity or West's?

Furthermore, attendance at all live events has been dropping. Live Nation has been facing financial issues because of declining ticket sales. There have been increases lately in ticket sales, though Live Nation is still having some financial issues. Overall concert attendance is down even though awareness is up. And, boy, if you want to start talking about a company that does a terrible job, and yet still exists, just look at Live Nation. But this isn't about Live Nation bashing, it's about continued decline in live music attendance.

If there's a problem in marketing with classical music, the problem lays with classical musicians. We're not doing our job well enough of reaching people. How many symphony musicians actively get their students to come to the symphony? When I studied with a principal player, he rarely mentioned the concerts. When I lived in Kansas City, I hardly heard a peep about what was happening with the KC Symphony, beyond the occasional "free tickets!" email sent to the conservatory. I didn't realize the KC Lyric was doing Nixon in China until it was sold out. It is, in part, my own fault. As a classical musician, perhaps I should be more "tuned in," and should be checking the arts calendars more often, and have the local symphonies webpages bookmarked and do the work myself. Perhaps I should sign up for the emailing lists...

But then again, that's a form of marketing that's very inactive, isn't it? It relies on the person you're trying to reach to go out of his/her way to find you. Then, once they've found you, you're in.

Take this against several of my friends in the jazz and pop world. Of course there's active use of Facebook, but it's important to remember the limited reach of Facebook--in the end, you're reaching your friends and followers. It's a bit more active, because you can initiate the contact, inviting people to like a page, or asking for a friend invite. I have to say the old system based on friending people with organizations was much better than inviting to pages. And, of course, they're posts only reach 16% of the people, on average. This means that while the bands my friends perform in do post their events, they also cross posted, repeatedly, with each member promoting as well. Some use twitter, and go out of their way to follow and gain followers. One friend in particularly still uses the old mass email.

I always know what my friends are doing. Even if I'm not paying attention, I can easily find out. They often reach out to me. I'm not saying social media and marketing is the way to go. Honestly, I don't think the reach is there for most businesses for it to be highly effective. But it's the active portion of it.

We also have to accept the reality of today's society. There's an ever growing portion of people that watch shows online instead of using TV. In fact, there's a growing number of people without TVs in their homes, with alternate devices taking over. About a third of the savior demographic utilizes the internet more for their viewing pleasure. On top of that, there's a large group that use ad blocking software. The privacy wars are raging, and it's causing a drop in ad space. While this can be good for symphonies and groups selling advertising (you can't block an ad in a live event), it can affect how a symphony markets itself. Paying for an ad on Facebook won't reach those tech savvy millenials you're after. Neither will playing on local TV.

I do not have an answer to the marketing issue...yet. But I'm working on some ideas that I think are perfectly in line with modern content and advertising ideas.

So, looking at this, what ideas really pop into your head? What ways are popular groups making a living these days? How are they advertising? Are they sacrificing their artistic ideas for the sake of more sales? The idea of the sell-out is of course omnipresent, as are the pop acts that are created by execs rather than by artistry. Should classical music change everything about itself to fit the idea of some mythical group?

Or should we find ways to reach people? Find ways so that people aren't angered by ticket prices. Address barriers to entry not from a "how do we change ourselves," thus leaving the barriers in place, just picking up and moving elsewhere (where there will be a new set of boundaries), or do we find ways to permanently remove barriers?

And if there are new modes to make money, how do we do them? I have quite a few ideas, and some have generated a fair bit of buzz in my secret meetings (look, I can do it too!). Look out in the future for any posts about upcoming projects, where some of these ideas come to fruition. 


When Kronos came to town

I take this break from my normal rhetoric to bring a concert review

Kronos Quartet came to Stockholm on May 9th bringing a mixed program ranging from traditionals and popular music to several recently commissioned pieces to their long-time signature. The technical skill of the quartet is as strong as ever, their communication and cohesiveness still at the elite level. Their blend as ensemble is at times hard to judge--they make use of amplification throughout, and choosing to use just a stereo pair of speakers on sticks on either side of the stage makes it hard to tell. That set-up, if using a stereo image of the group (which the engineer was), causes blend issues based on location. I was a bit further house left, so I got a bit more violin in my ear. Honestly, I would make use of a different style of amplification set-up, perhaps utilizing the array already in place which would have done a better job at even amplification across the space.

The program is as follows

  • John Oswald Spectre
  • Geeshie Wiley Last Kind Words, arr. Jacob Garchick
  • Raymond Scott, Powerhouse, arr. Michael DiBucci
  • Traditional, Smyrneiko Minore, arr. Garchick
  • Terry Riley, Serquent Risadome
  • Karin Rehnqvist, All Those Strings!, for string quartet and kantele, featuring Ritva Koistinen
  • George Crumb, Black Angels
  • 1st encore, Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze (arr. unknown)
  • 2nd encore, Laurie Anderson, Push
Spectre is a piece designed as an opener, utilizing a smooth transition from tuning the string section into the piece. It follows a process from the beginning to the end, from a drone cello tone building up, through the use of electronics, to "a thousand Kronoses" (quote from David Harrington in the show). The process is straight forward and effective. The balance of the electronics to the performers was generally good, though a few passages were almost unheard during the loudest build-up of the electronics. During the climax of the piece, were "a thousand Kronoses" were battling it out, the performers pantomimed playing, either in stop-motion, hitting a position and holding it, or in an exaggerated fashion. This brought some chuckles from the audience around me, as the exaggeration was a bit campy. Pantomime is a difficult performance medium for some to take seriously. 

Geeshie Wiley's Last Kind Words is an old Blues song dating from 1930. Below is a recording of Geeshie Wiley playing the song

Playing a blues song that wasn't originally an instrumental offers challenges. Jazz players do it regularly, with the approach being keeping the form and melody, but adding lots of personal touches and long solo sections. What Kronos presented was the song, in it's entirety, transcribed for string quartet. It was less an arrangement and more a straight transcription.

Below are the lyrics:

Stanza 1: The last kind words I heared my daddy say
Lord, the last kind words I heared my daddy say
Stanza 2: If I die, if I die in the German war
I want you to send my body, send it to my mother, lord
Stanza 3: If I get killed, if I get killed, please don't bury my soul
I p'fer just leave me out, let the buzzards eat me whole
Stanza 4: When you see me comin' look 'cross the rich man's field
If I don't bring you flour I'll bring you bolted meal
Stanza 5: I went to the depot, I looked up at the stars
Cried, some train don't come, there'll be some walkin' done
Stanza 6: My mama told me, just before she died
Lord, precious daughter, don't you be so wild
Stanza 7: The Mississippi river, you know it's deep and wide
I can stand right here, see my babe from the other side
Stanza 8: What you do to me baby it never gets outta me
I may not see you after I cross the deep blue sea

Here's the issue with instrumentally performing songs--none of those words come across in the performance. That feeling does not get transmitted to the audience magically. The music in many songs aids in the transmission of the lyrics, adding to the ideas present.

A good arrangement of a song like this takes into account the missing lyrics and their meaning. Those emotions must then be portrayed and brought out by the arrangement in some other fashion. Having the first violin play the melody while the other three instruments perform pizzicato accompaniment imitating a guitar makes for a bland arrangement. I was bored in the concert without knowing the piece, and downright irritated after doing a quick search and finding the piece. A standard blues song form, with it's repeated 12 bar set-up, can become monotonous without the lyrics, or the additions most jazz performers add. Not a good arrangement at all.

compare this to Michael DiBucci's arrangement of Raymond Scott's well known Powerhouse. Almost all of you will recognize this piece instantly, even if you don't know the title.

This arrangement was faithful to the original, while making use of string quartet in a variety of fashions. The arrangement was solid, the orchestration well done, and the performance top notch. It suffered from none of the arrangement issues of Last Kind Words.

Smyrneiko Minore ended the trio of arrangements. It was performed well, with a much more imaginative orchestration, though it too stayed very close to the original. John Harrington specifically mentioned the recording below by Marika Papagika

Again, what came out was much closer to a transcription than an arrangement. In this case the musical material already included string instruments, which Jacob Garchick transcribed almost perfectly. The melody line was handled by the first violin, including all the embellishments.

It's interesting to contrast Smyrneiko Minore and Last Kind Words based on their original content and how interesting the transcriptions became in performance. Smyrneiko has a much more florid vocal line, with embellishments and quarter tones thrown around as a part of the expressive character. Last sticks to a more traditional blues style with a strong focus on the lyric character. The difference between the florid and simple settings make for vast differences in the transcriptions. For me, Smyrneiko was more compelling as a transcription, whereas Last would have worked better with a more careful treatment, using the instruments to bring forth the emotion content of the words rather than just repeating the melody.

Terry Riley's Serquent Risadome is a piece written for Kronos' 40th anniversary. The piece is very sectional, making use of a few ideas that are developed shortly, then left behind, to be brought back later for a fleeting moment. I haven't been a huge fan of Riley's more recent works, and this piece also didn't resonate with me. Kronos did a good job navigating the quick changes, and doing a fine job bringing out the moments that connect the seemingly disparate sections of the work.

George Crumb's Black Angels is a staple of Kronos' repertoire. They did not disappoint in their performance. Speaking to a friend afterwards, she was intrigued by the theatrical elements of the piece, and how much was built into the piece and how much was added. It's the type of piece that can draw in an audience into the performance. Kronos chose to have the wine glasses up on a separate platform covered by black cloth, making the reveal quite theatrical. This again brought a few chuckles from the crowd, but this theatricality fit into the piece well, and was part of what made the piece so memorable for my friend.

This is the triumph of new music. The choreography was needed but interesting, demanded in the same way as large percussion set-ups, and done in an interesting way that draws a little attention to the movement, but in a positive fashion. The many different sounds and ideas in Black Angels gives an audience a ride through different territories (figuratively, metaphorically, and literally as far as development of ideas). It was met with raucous applause by the audience.

The first encore was Purple Haze. Here's a quick reminder of Jimi Hendrix:

Pay attention to Hendrix's guitar tone. There's a bit of fuzz, but not an overwhelming distortion. There's an edge on the vocals, more like they were tracked a little hot. There's not a large amount of compression, but it's definitely present. The drums are slightly in the back, with the snares being quite rattly. This is a live performance. Compare to this to studio version, here off the Best Of album

There's obviously more distortion, a more fierce distortion. And yet, each note is clear as day. For all the crunch and nastiness, the pitch isn't obscured by the effect. It's crunched, but soulful. The drums are crunched and compressed, but in a way that is fitting. It's a classic drum sound that has been emulated for ages.

Also notice the funky 1960s style stereo panning with the vocals in the right channel until the later effects that sent it ping-ponging. There's delay and reverb on the voice as an effect, emulating the lyrics.

Hendrix knew what he was doing.

Kronos' version was so distorted and compressed that pitch no longer mattered. Most of the time I had no idea what was being played. The effect was so badly mixed that it was just a wall of noise. I've described to people tonight as "a group of 15 year olds playing used guitars into used, nearly blown Marshall full stacks, with only an old Boss distortion pedal turned up all the way. Everything just cranked all the way as loud as possible, jamming in their parent's garage, just shredding like they're the greatest thing ever."

There's something to a raw sort of version of Purple Haze. But what I got wasn't raw, it was almost unlistenable. If it had been billed as a Merzbow meets Purple Haze, I might have bought it. Instead, I got an interpretation that left me more annoyed than anything.

For a real look into how a group should approach a "new standard," and interpretations of songs, fall down the amazing rabbit hole of doing a YouTube search for All Along the Watchtower. Start with Bob Dylan. Visit Jimi Hendrix. Move to Dave Mason. Listen to Dave Matthews Band if you're so inclined. There's a video of Eddie Vedder. You can listen to Eric Johnson do a version that hearkens back to Hendrix with his guitar tone and style. Take a listen to Richie Havens version. Maybe hop to Jamie N Commons' version. So many groups doing version that range from tributes to Hendrix or Dylan to more original takes. Performers keep their style and their tone, not adapting or aping someone else. There's individuality along with reverence. But be prepared for the rabbit hole that is this search path.

Thankfully, Kronos gave the audience a second encore that was more fitting with Laurie Anderson's beautiful piece. It's a simple song, beautiful in its simplicity. It allowed me to clap and give Kronos the appreciation they deserved.

You'll notice I skipped one piece, All Those Strings! by Karin Rehnqvist. I was unacquainted with Rehnqvist's music before arriving in Sweden. She teaches at KMH, but my contacts were in the electronic department, not the acoustic composition. However, since I arrived here, I've made a point of listening to the music of as many different Swedish composers as I could. Luckily, Rehnqvist has a fair amount of music available through Naxos, so I was able to at least get a fair sampling. What I heard I enjoyed.

All Those Strings! includes a kantele, a type of plucked dulcimer/zither. It's an instrument native to Finland, and is linked to Norwegian Finnish* mythology through the Kalevala, a epic poem written in the 19th century (which has been the source of many works of various art forms since its creation). The Kantele is a beautiful instrument, with a bell like quality. It reminded me of the hammered dulcimers of Appalachia, or the cimbalom. The plucked quality reminds me of the guzheng. All these instruments share the same family, so the relations in my mind make perfect sense.

There are times when I feel a piece is too short. Not because the piece did not give adequate time to the ideas or themes, thus leaving me unfulfilled. This was Brian Ferneyhough's criticism of my piece Dance of Disillusionment and Despair, when my my concept of miniature movements did not end up serving the material (or the material serving the form, to different views of the same problem).

Also not because it was a particularly short piece. There's something to be said for a piece that gets in and gets in and gets out, making it's point.

No, All Those Strings! was simply enjoyable enough that I didn't want it to end. The piece was billed as 20 minutes in length, and it felt closer to seven or eight minutes. There have been few moments when I got lost in a new performance, but Kronos and Ritva Koistinen's performance was impeccable. Rehnqvist's writing was idiomatic and made strong use of all the instruments, employing a range of techniques in a fashion that fit the musical material. The piece is very new, so there are no recordings available at the moment, but do yourself a favour, check out Rehnqvist's music, and put All Those Strings on your "To Buy" list. Hopefully Kronos and Koistinen will make a recording in the near future.

Overall, the concert was performed with the high level of artistry that one would expect from Kronos. The weakest portions were the pop songs, where Kronos seemed to miss the point of the songs with poor arrangements. The strongest were the pieces written for Kronos that made use of all the strengths and breadth of Kronos' skills.

*Edit made 5/12/2014. Why I'm thankful for astute readers! That's just a silly mistake: of course the Kalevala is Finnish. A few of my teachers are shaking their heads right now...


On Experimentalism, pt. 2

In my first post on experimentalism, I examined some issues with the current though process starting to grab hold in academia. At the top of the list was the idea of job preparation and a leaning toward finding answers to classical music's image problems by borrowing from popular music. I argued that this mode of thinking would lead to a stagnation of musical culture, as well as stunt the overall musical growth of students. This week, I look at two ideas of being experimental; the personal level and the universal level.

The personal level is accepting a mode of thinking and acting that revolves around experimentation. This means actively studying new techniques and ideas, being open to ideas from all areas, and entering with a sort of scientific mind-set.

What do I mean by a scientific mind-set? Think of doing experiments in a lab. If a young chemistry student sits down to do his/her first experiment, there are a few things that happen. First the teacher (or adult supervisor) helps the student learn the proper safety procedures and the use of the various equipment needed for the experiment. It wouldn't do much good for a student to start a distillation procedure, but not know how to set-up the Bunsen burner, or connect the glass piping together. After that, students are given the basic instructions on how to proceed. They are not told of exactly what awaits at the end, but instead sent off to do the experiment, write down observations, do calculations as needed, and find an answer.

This is how I approach writing music. Before I write a piece, I set out to learn any techniques needed, in at least a general way. As the piece evolves, I may find I need to work harder on one aspect, take some time to study a certain type of notation, or play around with one small idea for a while to learn it's inner workings. This reminds me of an experiment I did in chemistry long ago when we were doing a distillation experiment. I followed the directions properly for the set-up, but it still took a little fiddling to find the right setting on the burner that would be hot enough but not too hot (and thereby uncontrollable), as well as having to make sure some of the linking in the tubing where completely secure.

I don't start with an ending in mind, instead a general direction or idea. Maybe I want to explore spectralism as a pitch structure, but due to the make-up of the commissioning group, I can't keep the timbre possibilities exact, not can I use the type of rhythmic language usually associated with the movement. So, I explore, play around, find different ways to play with the basic pitch material and overall sonic image from the recording. And out comes a piece that seems more like a funk piece than spectral piece.

I am a composer that is endlessly experimenting. My time in college has been to learn and try as many different types of writing music as I could. This gave some of my teachers fits, as I'd ask about some obscure style of writing music. Other teachers loved my sense of experimentation, always interested to see what would come next--maybe an hour long randomly generated electronic piece, or a fluxus style improvisation piece with trash cans. Recently I've written an algorithmic compositionTDRM, for trombone and percussion. This work is also proportionally notated, meaning that standard rhythms have been removed, instead a general sense of speed is given for the piece, and the rhythms are interpreted by the performers by the proximity of note-heads. There are also graphic representations, extended techniques, and a kazoo. 
 None of the techniques in this piece are brand new--I've invented nothing. The experiment in this case is a personal one. I had never written my own software for determining composition, nor done an entirely proportionally notated score. I had to learn new software, new techniques in software I was already familiar with, and change my entire mode of thinking in the creation of this piece. The experience of the piece will be noticeably different in each performance, and the end results musically would easily be considered to be avant-garde. It most certainly does not fit in with any pervading opinion of music, be it the academic mindset or the populist mindset. The piece is experiment, which may completely fail.

My dissertation is an opera with an original libretto. It has many traditional elements--it is pseudo-through composed, in the sense that the arias don't happen expressly as "stop and sing," but are inherent to the action of the drama. The writing within the opera may be a tick lower on the experimental spectrum than most of my works, but that is due to a different consideration. No, not the consideration of will it be popular, nor accepting that opera houses mostly stage Romantic works, so I should play to that audience. Instead it's due to a musical and dramatic choice that is somewhat unique.

Most operas are written in one main style. Specific styles may change, the inclusion of a dance movement, or a more Romantic turn for a love aria. However, when one listens to a Mozart opera, it is definitely Mozart. The unifying style of an opera by John Adams goes a bit further, with a minimalist attitude permeating the entire score. If the opera is a bel canto opera, all the singers will perform in that style. If it's more of a musical theater style, all performers will perform that style.

My opera takes the dramatic idea of characterization to the music. Characters speak with distinct voices in plays. Dialogue is written to differentiate the characters from one another. However, it seems that most music is written in a more homogeneous style. Yes, the voice types will differ, and the best opera composers used pitch and rhythm cleverly to delineate characters. I'm taking a more novel approach of each character operating in a particular style--this means that the punk singer will not be singing bel canto, but screaming, and the music backing him will be a punk band. Another singer is a sprechstimme role in the style of Brecht/Weill, and so the music is reflected accordingly. When singers of different styles take a duet or trio, elements of their styles are intertwined into a single style, or are overridden by a pervading style--however all the singers remain true to their voices, creating a clash of styles more like one would encounter in a normal conversation.

Will this work? Honestly, I have my doubts. There's usually a good reason why certain things have happened a certain way over time. However, I'm taking the chance to experiment, to try an idea that is, at least new to me. If I was worried about performability, perceived popular opinion, or economics, this project would never exist. How can I make money on a full scale opera, being worked on at the moment with no opera company partner? How can I write music that is outside the perceived popular opinion? And where will I find a punk singer that's willing to scream on stage for an opera?

All good questions, and things I will deal with after the work is completed. I can pitch the project to companies, now as I'm working, and later after it's finished, or find a way to finance and produce the work myself. I never worry about perceived popular opinion, but it is interesting to note that every single person I've described this project to thinks it's a fantastic idea--from the musical idea, to the original story, to the interweaving of folk tales and current politics, to the influence of death metal. And you'd be amazed how many popular performers were in drama club in HS, and wouldn't mind doing another musical, especially if it's doing what they already do.  

All this ties into the idea of experiential learning, that humans can learn to do something through active experimentation. What happens when experimentation is removed, and instead replaced with an economic rationale for learning? It's actually been shown in a couple articles that money is not the best motivator. Instead, internal motivation for creation should be used for motivating young musicians. Furthermore, education should be used to broaden a students understanding, not force a narrow viewpoint. Even in specialized courses, the goal is to challenge students, not to give them basic tools and shoo them out the door. We'll end up with generations of young people unable to reason their way out of a problem, only apply pre-determined formulas. I've seen this first hand from a specific trade school churning out graduates in audio production. Most of the students I've met come out with an understanding of exactly what they were shown, and nothing else. There are a few outstanding students I've met that had a firmer grasp of fundamentals and theoretical ideas, allowing them to apply their training to other similar devices...but only a few.

All of these ideas tie to the idea of personal experimentation. I am under no illusion that my music is somehow transcendentally unique. Instead I work in small increments, learning new skills, new ideas, and testing my own boundaries. All the while I'm learning the breadth of music available, and seeing where I fit within the grand traditions.

Experimentalism in a universal sense is moving outside those student experiments. You've been working on ideas, ideas that for all your hard research you have yet to find paralleled elsewhere. Perhaps it's a new tuning system, or a the use of a newly created instrument. This is the universal experimentalism. It's what happens when a person follows a long stream of "what if"s until it reaches a point where no one has explored before. This is what leads to great leaps in technology and art.

It's what happened when multitrack recorders started hitting the circuit. The idea of multitrack recording (or recording more than 1 channel at a time. This includes stereo recording) is ubiquitous now, but it wasn't widely available until the early 1960s. The first commercial machines were made in the late '50s by Ampex, with the first one sold to Les Paul. And without Les Paul, Ampex may never have even made the technology, as his continuous tinkering and experimentation led to several different multitrack recording set-ups prior to Ampex selling him the 8-track machine. By the late 70s, multitrack had taken over.

It's what happens when Bela Bartok and Zoltan Kodaly take an early mono recorder out and start recording folk songs. Alan Lomax did the same thing, collecting American folk songs, but did so in a way to preserve the tradition. Bartok took the folk songs, and used their raw nature to create classical music. Even this idea was far from new, with the use of folk and popular songs as starting points for art music dating back to the beginning of art music (see fact #7). But it was the way in which Bartok used the folk songs, keeping the complexities and nuances of the untrained singers, not shying away from free rhythms and complex meters as needed. It was keeping the pitch material closer to the original, instead of shoving it into an already accepted Western scale.

It's an experimental nature that leads to something new to the entire form, not just to a single person. It's that leap in understanding. It's the same leap made by Pierre Schaefer  in using recorded sounds to create music, something that is now common in popular and art mediums. It's those leaps that can be lost when we turn music education into a job preparation kit, especially focusing on ideas that are popular over personal exploration and development.

It's that constant search for bettering oneself. Some people refer to this as "finding your voice." I dislike that phrase because it points to an end point, that all this work leads to one single outcome; your voice, your one unified style in which every piece shall be written. I wonder what Stravinsky would think of this idea as he switched styles throughout his life. Or Penderecki, who after writing complex pieces with large amounts of extended techniques, switched to a more Romantic style. Did they never find their voices? Or do we consider their last pieces the culmination, that this is what the journey was all about. Has Penderecki, who still lives and writes music, found his voice in his latest choral works?

Or is there no one voice, and he's moved continuously in development, accepting and rejecting his own ideas. Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshmia is a highly experimental piece composed in 1960. Penderecki explored many extended techniques, percussive hitting of the body of the string instruments, and new notations. He has since left this style, with the anecdote being that he "has written all that can be written in this language." Is this type of language a dead end then? Are there no more experiments, just rearrangements of the same twelve tones?

I argue against this approach, the linear idea of a start and a finish. I believe any use of music education that becomes that sort of end-product focused can lead to a disaster. Of course there are markers we can use. A performer can and should be able to play all major and minor scales over the entire extent of the instrument. This can be graded for accuracy, and the next step of technique can be attained. A composer can and should learn to write a fugue, following very specific rules. The adherence to these rules can and should be graded for accuracy. The same can be said for learning counterpoint rules, all the extended techniques available for each instrument, basic instrumentation, form, different ways of generating musical structures, and on and on. The more knowledge one has, even if not actively engaging in it's use, will change the way one thinks about a passage...and all of a sudden, completely unbidden, a passage turns into a perfect serialist fugue, without the aid of a matrix.

Experimentalism in music is needed at all levels. It is through this experimentation, the pushing of new ideas, that music can grow. It is not through touting all ideas as new ideas. Research is integral to this approach. A young chemist doing a simple experiment, say, heating mercury thiocyanate in a place no one has thought to in a while, say, in a large quantity in a park, doesn't run out and say "I have created something entirely new! A wonderful form of chemistry called 'live interactive park chemistry!' " It's still the same experiment. And, more than likely someone has done it...and gotten the fine associated with creating noxious fumes in a public place.

In closing, it's important to remember that without experimentalism, there is no development in music. By making music into a vocational schooling meant to pump out musicians that can trumpet the latest fad in music, but without the skills to reach new conclusions will only hurt music in the long run. It will create a generation of followers, musicians that think they're developing new ideas when in reality just putting a slightly different paint job on the same idea.


On experimentalism

In the current push of critiquing music, a few views have become old stand-bys:
  1. All music must be immediately relevant to a mythic, all encompassing audience. Most classical music, either from the past or currently written does not fit this mold
  2. The number one way to prove the relevancy and quality of a work is to show that it sells well. This means high ticket and record sales. To this end, it is obvious that classical music should adopt popular music models.
  3. Music education at the post-secondary level should be to prepare musicians for the business end of music, to train musicians to make a living in the arts after graduation. This ties directly into point 2, as the types of music studied, styles of courses, and various grading mechanism should be tied to economic success. 
  4. Differing views from the populist model are considered traditional, and the main reason people are against this model is due to their conservative streak. It's a new way of thinking, and therefore the more conservative minded are against it.
  5. We should exemplify organizations that have succeeded in creating money and popularity without criticizing their stance, or without researching and considering all of the pros and cons of those positions. Most importantly, it should be known that what works for one organization will work for all organizations, regardless of locale, clientele, or any other factors. 
  6. Experimental (read not traditional nor pop influence fusion), academic, post-tonal, musique concrete acoustique, spectralism, and any other movements in music function to alienate the audience, and therefore should be eschewed for styles of music more popular with the mythic audience.
These points are heavy handed reductions of the views I've been reading from critics, comments throughout the web, and conversation with musicians. Being heavy handed, they show my attitude quite clearly toward these simplified views. Let me continue to lay my hand on the table.

There's been a trend recently on this blog to explain positions that are outside the popular opinion of a small circle of respected critics. Most of these critics hail from the Eastern seaboard of the US, with a large concentration in the mid-Atlantic and NYC area. This NYC-centricity explains ideas that are most apt to that specific locale, and only describe a sub-section of all the people in the area. For every description of  dinner/concert production that has met with success, there are any number of new music groups performing difficult, interesting, and experimental works. For every pop oriented performance, there's a JACK quartet performing Helmut Lachenmann to rave reviews or Georg Friedrich Haas' tour de force String Quartet No. 3 to a packed house. This is to say that as critics try and create one image of the arts, a different image, held in a completely different dimension, seems to be moving along well. 

The populist view has a damning effect, which I attempted to articulate in part in my post on pandering. At an even earlier point, I attacked the idea of writing for an imaginary perfect audience. The rationale is simple: to write for a presumed perfect audience, a composer must be willing to move against his own ideas, and accept a cobbled-together, watered down, multiple choice test aggregate idea of what music is. This is where articles have been written specifically saying not to write or perform down to an audience. Simply put, if you're looking at the average of a wide demographic, it is easy to shoot for that average or the lower end of the average. That is, in effect, pandering: giving the audience what you think they want instead of giving the audience the highest caliber artistic experience possible. 

For composers to choose this path is their own prerogative. There are composers working in popular music genres, fusion genres, and all over that write compelling, interesting, and original music in those styles. They have an ability to find their own personal voice while navigating a narrow checklist of must haves when writing in particular genre. Not everyone can do this--not everyone can accept adding a bass drop and a dub style bass line to a pop song, even if it is in vogue. 

I'm reminded of an excellent blog-post by Alex Temple on cultural relevancy. As soon as the argument becomes about classical music being relevant, it's important to remember to ask "for whom?" Beyond that, it's important to go through what may or may not make the experience important to people. It could be the music, or the preconceptions about the music and its environment. The problem could, in fact, have nothing to do with the experience as it would happen, but the assumed ideas of people regarding the experience. 

This all bleeds into my ideas on education. I've been an active educator for quite some time, ranging from teaching private lessons and coaching ensembles at local middle school and high schools during my undergrad years, to teaching brass during marching season, to music appreciation at the college level (sometimes for high school students in special programs), and into teaching audio engineering, music technology, and composition. In Marek Poliks' ongoing series, he recently discussed how new music is academic music, and the inextricable ties between these two institutions.

It's true, new music is academic music. And the idea of new music, or perhaps we should say original music, is under attack.

Let's look first at the University system in America. There is the continued strife between "traditionalists," or those that like the idea of a broad, core curriculum (the liberal arts), and "academics" that want a curriculum with tighter specialized courses, but at the same time larger freedom for students to choose their path. There's also a trend toward looking at the economic success of alumni as a measuring stick for how well a college is doing. This can be simplified to a question: what is the purpose of higher education? Is it to learn skills to be successful in an economic sense? Is it to achieve a higher level of education, broad or specific? Is it to prepare a student for his/her chosen career path, whether or not that career path is economically viable? More and more questions arise from the simple question of "What is the purpose of higher education?"

This is hotly debated in music. DePauw University is currently changing their entire curriculum, and even though I'm an alumni, I have heard nothing regarding how it may change (nor much more than a basic survey regarding what I perceive I may have needed from the education to be successful as a musician). What I fear is a turn toward the populist economic model. David Cutler has written several articles (which I've linked before) that have some provocative ideas in them. And some of those ideas make me afraid for one of the main tenets I believe post-secondary education can provide for students:

A safe haven for experimentation.

There was a study published looking at what has been happening in popular music, specifically measuring the use of timbre, pitch, and dynamics, to see what has changed in the past 50+ years. The answers, summarized in the Smithsonian online magazine, has shown that timbre content has gone down, pitch content has gone down, and overall loudness (and compression) have gone up. Fewer pitches, fewer sounds, louder. 

There's been a similar movement in classical music. Starting after WWII, post-tonal theories were leading in new works. Serialism was still chugging along. The avant-garde was still working hard, producing works in new styles, including proportional notation, working with extended tuning systems after Harry Partch, Moving later in America, the avant-garde took a different approach, moving away from the densely packed machinations of their predecessors and into minimalism and post-minimalism. Minimalist works focused on process, a single idea taken through to it's logical conclusion (think, Clapping Music by Steve Reich or In C by Terry Riley). Or there were other takes, a more ambient, repetitive music that, occasionally, would shift slightly Post-minimalism took the idea, and toned down the nature of it. It turned, in a sense, to a modal music that was triadic in nature. What I mean is that while it took chords from tonal music, it did not adhere to the structure of tonal music. This was new to the classical music scene of the time, but it had been explored heavily, dating back to early triadic constructions (pre-Common Practice Era, or roughly 1600CE), and then again in jazz, most notably with Miles Davis' recording Kind of Blue. The first track of Kind of Blue, entitled So What typifies the idea of modal music. In this case, Davis uses only two chords, alternating between them. One could even make a claim that the jazz world predated the idea of Terry Riley's In C with Charle's Minguse's 1956 recording The Clown, especially the first track Haitian Fight Song (and further examples can be found throughout time, as ideas are recycled, altered, and gussied up for the new generation).

All this to point out that there was a reactive movement that started in the 60s and moved through the 70s and 80s in classical music away from a dense pitch construction, but retained the complexity of timbre and dynamics. The study about popular music didn't take into account rhythm, but one can see a squaring out of rhythms in classical music during this time period as well, sometimes as a mode of expression (in the harsh repetitive nature of early Philip Glass), or because of the aggregate end product was far more complex (Clapping Music and In C). At the same time, groups were experimenting in new modes of expression, including spectralism, among the many. Increases in technology made it easier for electronic music to be produced, and it was beginning to move further from the fringes of the avant-garde to a more mainstream avant-garde; away from being a sub-sub-genre, alienated even with the experimental community, to being accepted by the experimental community. But where is this incredibly abbreviated, and ham-handed history leading us?

Unlike what many populists purport, there has not been an industry wide attack on tonal, neo-Romantic, or any other type of music in academia. As aging serialist composers retired from teaching life, their students and the generation younger than them (who were still taught by the older powers), took a more holistic, inviting approach. Here's the disconnect I am seeing--not once in my lessons with composers young and old was I told not to write a certain style of music. Not once. And yet, critics seem to take a point in saying that composers are out of touch, that we force views on students like it's Darmstadt at its inception, that it's Pierre Boulez pre-correspondences with John Cage. And, in the place of serialism, they wish to raise up a new all-powerful master: music written for the imaginary perfect audience.

It will, of course, be accessible to all, unlike past music. It will follow trends in popular music. It will find ways to engage audiences in new ways, like playing in clubs or maximizing online resources.

It will be regressive, turning into a follower, not a leader. It will try to engage all people, while ignoring those already standing by its side. And it will discard all that has been for something new, because the past is over, and nothing can be learned or gained by examining it.

This is a problem. It's a problem because it takes a strong dogmatic stance, it raises one form of art over another as far as taste (not quality), and creates expectations of what artists will need without regard to the trade-offs. This is, of course, on the side of hyperbolic--I'm engaged not with the specific people involved, but with their marketed personas. What may be just another form of sensationalist media hides what could be amazing conversations with the greatest care and intent.

But it's important not to leave behind the spirit of true experimentation in all areas. And since experimental and new ideas are not immediately profitable, they come at odds with that line of thinking.

Touchscreens were patented in the US in 1967. The first commercial use of a touchscreen in a computer was in the early 1980s. They were a regular feature in certain GMC cars in the late 80s (Buicks, I believe. I have actually seen and touched one of touch screens). When was the first touchscreen phone? The early 90s with a prototype by IBM, some 10+ years before Apple's development of the iPhone. The original handheld mobile phones came out in the 1970s, and it wasn't until the 1990s that mobile phones became more widespread.

Early versions of these technologies were expensive to produce, and met with resistance from traditionally minded people. Technophobia is a normal condition brought on by rapid changes in technology--it's much easier to use what we are used to than to explore a constantly changing environment. The same is true in music.

The most well-documented and cited example may be Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky. The piece was a radical departure from the norm of the time, exploring a more modal style of writing with repetitive chords, brash orchestration, (skip back to hear an explanation) and had an accompanying choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky that was as provocative as the music. And yet, 100 years after Rite of Spring premiered to riots and critical disdain, it has been embraced by the musical community as one of the greatest works of the 20th century. The acclaim came somewhat quickly, as after the dust had settled from the premiere, about a year later the concert version was meeting with more popular success. A year is a short time to wait if one writes a piece that is so provocative or experimental! But there are still many musicians who find this work to be challenging and progressive, even as it past it's 101st birthday.

What would happen to these works if they were tied perfectly to commercial success. Can we expect more composers like Stravinksy, who found collaborators with large purse strings, willing to fund the most forward thinking and experimental works? Or will we take the view of the large institutions in the US, a conservative viewpoint of Romantic repertoire being the large selling point, with the more populist pieces and well known living composers getting a small sampling of performances? Will we see another John Cage Concert for Piano, a work whose score involves as much drawing as standard notation, and each individual part can be played as a solo without the piano? And when will we see it? Will it be a Radiohead-esque experience, where the band writes the music that makes money, then turns more and more toward the experimental vibe they always wanted? Or will we, as certain composers such as John Adams claim, lead to a weakening of music by lack of forward movement?

And can something exist that walks the line between experimentation (in a personal and universal fashion) and traditionalism still be a strong piece?

In my next post, I'll talk more about my personal relationship with experimentalism, and how and where I'm seeing that spirit continue, either in small steps or giant leaps. I believe these examples will help clarify why I firmly believe that academia should not just become a way to churn out students with business sense and the ability to read market data and create a product that will sell for the radio, but to be a breeding ground for experimentalism in all its forms. This is especially true of personal experimentation, urging students to go far outside their comfort zone, examine new ideas, and work toward greater goals.