Finding Home

It's been said that art, and especially music, is a journey. Moving through the piece is more important than reaching the end.

The same has been said of education: it's all about the process, the journey, not the end product.

My life, art, and education has very much been a journey. Rural Indiana high school, not with terrible academics, but not the types of opportunities many of my later friends had. My 2nd choice, a liberal arts school a bit too close to home, with an environment that all at once was familiar (rural Indiana) and very different (rugged academics, all day/night practicing/working/studying).

A fun summer spent working in Michigan, a side-trip, a chance to feel out a different land. Trips to Colorado, Ohio, Seattle, LA, San Fran, Phoenix--some on tour, some on visits. After undergrad, running off to the beach in South Jersey because, hey, why not?

South Jersey was great--new friends, new environment, new yet old industry. Beaches, casinos, trips to Philly, NYC, Boston, and the occasional job in Delaware. I did a masters in Brooklyn.

Lived in Brooklyn for a solid portion of time, traveled quite a bit around the coast, met awesome people, lived. Took another trip to LA.

"Lost" my job (or did it lose me?). The industry tanked, there were no jobs. And, with a masters, I quickly became...overqualified. Turned down everywhere local. My choice was a casino gig (if I could land one, which in the economy was doubtful) or move back to Indiana.

I left Jersey, the closest place to feeling like home. There were more reasons, but the job was the kicker.

Back to Indiana...not a good time. Took months to get a job, crashed at friends' places after some nastiness with the family, begged for any opportunity to leave.

I took the first offer--UMKC. Didn't even put in any other apps. I loaded my jeep with cooking supplies, an inflatable bed, toiletries, sundries, and a space heater. Moved into an apartment sight-unseen. Moved around the KC area, lived alone and with others, partied, got wasted, got published, traveled to Sweden, NYC, Buffalo, Portugal. I saw the world with jaded eyes.

KC is attempting to grow. It's lost a lot in the last 30 years, but they're trying. The arts are coming back, even as Google Fiber brings in more industry. These things go hand in hand.

KC is not home. Neither was NYC, LA, San Fran, Seattle, Boston, Philadelphia, Atlantic City, Denver, Phoenix, Lisbon, Indianapolis, Sharpsville, Kokomo, Tipton, Milwaukee...They've never felt right.

In a short while, I leave for Stockholm. I've been before, and it felt good to me. I hold no illusion that, suddenly, I will find home. But, at the same time, I won't deny it until it's failed.

This might seem like a 29 year old man that's just not "settled." That all I need is a steady job and a good woman or some other stereotypical things. No...that's not it.

I think everyone gets a sense of where they belong. I used to think I just suffered from "wanderlust." But, I've realized, if I suffered from wanderlust, I'd probably like traveling...and I don't. But I feel uneasy in most places, like my insides just aren't settled.

This is what my music is about. It's about that uneasiness, about never quite feeling completely at home. It's why it'll start in one place and end in another--even though the change shouldn't feel completely wrong. It's why short pieces always return to the beginning. Those simply describe a week, or maybe as long as a year.

My music is some sort of journey...but not necessarily in a single piece. But all of them together, well...I guess that's just my life.

And my life revolves around one main point: finding home.


Storytelling in various mediums

   For those not in the know, I'm a bit of a gamer. I grew up playing AD&D and other pencil and paper style RPGS. This list includes GURPS, Shadowrun, Rifts, Star Wars, Call of Cthulhu, Paranoia, and others. I was quickly known as a rules snob, but I wasn't really--just if you were going to use the core rules, you had to use the rules. If the DM was running a story where the core rules did not apply, then I was all for whatever rules the DM. Heck, I was the guy that knew the 2nd edition grappling rules (the ultimate in nerddom right there).

   I didn't play the games for the rules. I didn't play them to drink and eat pizza--that came much later. I didn't even really play them for the social interaction. I didn't have a "gaming group" and then my friends. The groups were made up of my brothers, their friends, and later on my friends. I knew these people pretty darn well, went to movies, the pool, hell I lived with most of them at one point in college.

   I played these games because I love stories. Oh man, do I love stories. I've read constantly since as long as I could remember. My parents had books, one about gnomes, another about trolls, and all sorts of other stuff like that...I remember reading those with my brother...I remember him teaching me to read with Go Dog Go when I was 3 years old. Not shitting you--it was before I starter pre-school even. He was always like that, trying to teach me shit too early.

   But I was hooked on the stories. By 8, I was reading Tolkein. As I laid in the hospital for weeks on end, I'd read The Hobbit, The Fellowship of the Ring, and then onto whatever fantasy books my brothers would bring me. Having cancer was a pain in my blood (Leukemia), but it gave me time to read. And I devoured fantasy novels whole.

   Around the same time, my parents got us a Sega Genesis. I played three types of games: sports, strategy, and RPGs. The Genesis, sadly, didn't have a huge body of RPGS, but I played a bunch of them: all three Phantasy Stars (just the 3 Genesis titles, not the original), Traysia, Shining in the Darkness, Beyond Oasis, Shadowrun, Sword of Vermillion, Exile, D&D Warriors of the Eternal Sun, Light Crusader...Most of the big names. My favourites were by far the Phantasy Star games, but they were all great. They all had interesting stories (Ok, Light Crusader didn't really, but, I'll let that slide). The depth of the Phantasy Star games was insane--a coherent story ranging across four separate titles that were complete unto themselves, but amazing when stuck together. I empathized with the characters, was drawn into the action, and loved every moment of it.

   They were like well written novels. They drew me in the same way many authors did, ranging from Tolkein to Eddings to R.A. Salvatore (him not so much anymore. DRIZZT IS PLAYED OUT ALREAD!) to Terry Pratchet. I was drawn in...

   Games I play now, I'm not drawn in. I've got a pile of games for 360 that I've started and just shrugged. I finally got around to beating Rage, and while the story was at times interesting, it was unfulfilling by the end. The only two series/games that have really drawn me in? Mass Effect and Elder Scrolls.

    Beyond those five games (and the poorly put together ending of ME 3...and to be honest, I played Oblivion on PC first) I haven't found a single game that actually drew me into the story. Sure, there have been fun games to play--going through Gears of War 1-3 in multiplayer was fun, and Dark Souls makes me hate and love my life--but those are mostly game play things. They're fun to play, shoot, strategize. I've still got a couple sports games (all 2-3 years old, of course), and I inherited X-COM before my roommate destroyed it...

    But this post isn't even really about video games...

    It's about story-telling. We all know books tell stories. Theatrical productions do as well--another things I've seen/participated in more this past year than I have in many years. Video games also tell stories, and I think we're seeing a swing toward how the stories are told being far more important than the stories themselves. This is not to say how the stories are told isn't important. No, it's a wonderful balance between the two that makes a truly outstanding game.

   But, what about music?

   There's a current trend toward using literary theory when dealing with music. Susan McClary is one that jumped onto the band-wage early. If you haven't read her book Feminine Endings or at least the most famous bit where she analyzes Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, you should totally do it. This link will get you close on Google Books. Click on "did you mean Tchaikovsky, which is exactly how I spelled it...silly Google...It's pg 69 onwards for a bit.

   Large areas of musicology came into popularity thanks to McClary being unafraid to go where others dared not tread, grabbing from literary theory and throwing it onto music. It was all highly post-structuralist...kinda. maybe...I mean, mostly. Researchers these days take a listener first approach...well, sorta...except for when the composer says something, then that's important, right?

   But I digress from the problem. Research in musicology and music theory is suspect quite often. I'm absolutely no different in my own writings. But, one thing many people against the movement say is "Music cannot tell a specific story. There's no such thing as straight or gay music, masculine or feminine, or even some the deeper ideas of the struggles. It's not possible because music is abstract--researchers are just picking a theory, and forcing a piece into it."

   And, to an extent, I actually agree with those naysayers.

   There are a lot of philosophers that have tackled the issue of music, meaning, and emotions. Peter Kivy, Stephen Davies, Jerrold Levinson, Nelson Goodman, and many more. Just hit up Stanford's philosophy site and check it out. The one interesting thing in all these guys who do not agree at all?

    Music is not a language in that it lacks semantics--music has no meaning on its own.

    AH, and that, my friends, is the crux of my problem.

    You see, when I listen to music, there is no "story." I can read the program notes for, say, Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, and listen to the piece, and try and figure out what bits fit where. The name itself implies a meaning that may or may not be in the piece itself. This is a type of psychological priming. We are given a context before hearing the piece, and that context creates the pieces story. There's one problem with priming, in this case: does it prove that the music has a story, or does it lead the listener to a story?

 Then we have reference. Any easy composer to grab for reference is Charles Ives. When I listen to a piece of his, say, Piano Sonata No. 3: Concord: Mvt. III-The Alcotts, I hear the references: notably Beethoven's 4th Symphony and The Bridal Chorus from Lohengrin. Those references mean something personal to me--Beethoven's 4th was the first piece I really analyzed compositionally, and the Bridal Chorus because of its association with weddings. Take into account the priming with the title, named after Amos Bronson and Louisa May, and split into 2 sections forming a large AB form (one for each), the piece definitely creates some sort of narrative. But what is that narrative? I've listened to this piece many times, and love it, not for it's loose narrative and association to the Alcotts, but because it is a beautiful written piece. But is it narrative? Can a researcher create a narrative from what is presented musically? Maybe, with enough research, tons of connections could be made between the quotations and the Alcotts. But the ones I've read so far haven't convinced me yet.

    There's a great book out by Lawrence Zbikowski called Conceptualizing Music. In it, Zbikowski breaks down a lot of how people understand sounds, mainly from a stand-point of cognitive schemata. Basically, humans like to group things based on different categories, all overlapping into giant networks of WTF. We're a jumbled mess. There's also a great article by Ian Cross and Elizabeth Tolbert called "Music and Meaning." Both of these show just how complex this problem really is.

    All this to get down to a single point: can a piece of music, without words, tell a story, without psychologically priming the listener? Can I play a piece of music, written to my ear depicting very specific things, and create a story that can be read by people, and understood without priming or ubiquitous use of reference (which would lose meaning over time anyway, as the social contexts of the music/sounds will change over time)?

    And does it even matter?

    Pierre Schaeffer wrote about "reduced listening" in electronic music. The idea being that while musique concrete used real worlds sounds, such as train sounds in his Etude aux chemin de fer, that the listeners were not supposed to listen and say "OH, TRAIN! We're going on a train ride!" but attend to the sounds themselves as musical.

    John Cage also wrote and spoke about how all the sounds around us could be musical. Does this mean listeners were meant to not think about the relationship of the sounds? This falls into another few philosophers/linguists mentioned in the earlier article by Cross and Tolbert: Frege and Peirce. I know Peirce's ideas on semiotics best, so I'll explain briefly.

    Peirce come up with this idea of there being a signifier and signified. So, in the case of Schaeffer, a listener would hear a train sound. This is the signifier. What is signified could be "train" or "travel" or "industry." There are lots more levels regarding different types of signifiers and signified words/sounds in Peirce's writing, but this is a glib bit.

    So, in non-electronic music, researchers can deal with semitotics. For instance, in Ives, a researcher could, as I mentioned earlier, look at all the different references made by Ives in the movement. Easy enough, there's a book called All Made of Tunes that lists them all. The researcher could then easily go through the history of the Alcotts, their collective writings, etc, and find semiotic bits. Basically, the idea I mentioned before, but fitting within a specific theoretical framework. Honestly, I'd be surprised if NO ONE has done this yet. If so, any of you reading can feel free to write the paper--just give me a shout-out somewhere.

    But, this still raises a question: without all that knowledge, what is the story? And can a piece without all the priming of say Ives, through quotation and writing, tell the story?

    Do we hear Susan McClary's interpretation of Tchaik's 4th without her bringing it up?

    Storytelling is a delicate thing. It takes a certain amount of world-building, careful planning, and good syntactical skills to put together. The medium itself alters how story's are told: books, plays, video games, AR (augmented reality, which I didn't even touch), paintings, movies, and music all behave differently and are understood by the receiver in very different ways. All these mediums have unique challenges.

    And I look for a great story and storytelling in a video game. It's why while the game play of Call of Duty can be fun, I just don't like those games. I'm not drawn in. But, in music without words, do I care about story-telling?

    No, not so much. I don't listen to a 40 minute symphony and try to imagine a story through the whole thing. I don't listen for the history of the composer, the influence of other composers, or all the possible quotations. Try listening for all the quotations in Ives' 4th Symphony. It makes the piece much less interesting, at least for me. I'm just...listening.

    Not everyone listens that way--I accept that wholeheartedly. And I don't think taking a post-structuralist literary theory approach to understanding music is wrong, in some absolute sense. I just think that, sometimes, it comes down too much as taking a theory, and forcing a piece into it, rather than the other way around. Post-structuralism is nice because it lets a researcher say "What I hear is more important than what the composer wants me to hear!"

    But then, as a composer, I know very few composers that really want you to hear anything specific. We use program notes not as a "You must hear this!" but as a way to help listeners experience something when hearing a piece they may only ever hear once.

    It's all troublesome--the lack of good stories in video games, the difficulty in transmitting ideas across mediums, shoehorning theories meant for one medium into another medium that doesn't behave the exact same way in our brains. And I haven't even gotten into the amount of cultural and social priming we go through thanks to movies (high strings playing fast passages = terror? Thanks Bernard Hermann for making Black Angels either more poignant or more trite, depending on who you ask).

    This is a long post, I know. And there will undoubtedly be more, as I work through this little conundrum. Heck, there may even be a GUEST post! First for everything, right? Or a drunken live blogging session. Who knows?

    But, sometimes, it's important to think about how we experience our surroundings, and what that means to us.


Is "reading" music fundamental?

   In the UK, a new 224 page national education curriculum is going up for a vote in August. Somewhere in the back of the document, for a few scant pages (three to be exact), outlines the most basic ideas of music education: the purpose, aim, and target "attainment" levels for key stages 1-3 (or through age 14). The three pages are barebones, giving only the passing nod to ideas such as "use(ing) technology appropriately..." which is an area I've heard a fair bit about during the last year.

   Instead, it moves onto the subheading of the original article that brought this to my attention. Over at ClassicFm an article briefly introduced the idea that the national curriculum was changing. It waxes poetic on the beautiful idea that "music is a universal language," which, while a beautiful idea, isn't exactly true. But, again, that's for another time...

   It's the focus on music notation that caught my eye. The subheading states "by 2021 every 14 year old will be able to read music if the new curriculum is approved in August." That's a claim!

   The inclusion of being able to read notation in national curriculum's isn't new. NAfME (National Association for Music Education) has reading and notation music as a part of its national standards as well. So, I'm not surprised by the inclusion--if anything I'm somewhat surprised it's news. I'm not as up on UK educational systems, but it'd be surprising if there wasn't some cursory mention of reading and notating music at some level.

   But all this made me ask a question: is reading and writing music fundamental to a liberal arts style education?

    Seems like an odd question for someone finishing a doctorate in music composition to ask. I'm questioning whether something that for an active musician is fundamental. Or is it at that?

    Let me take this back a couple steps. What is, according to the new national curriculum in the UK, the purpose of studying music?

   "Music is a universal language that embodies one of the highest forms of creativity. A high-quality music education should engage and inspire pupils to develop a love of music and their talent as musicians, and so increase their self-confidence, creativity and sense of achievement. As pupils progress, they should develop a critical engagement with music, allowing them to compose, and to listen with discrimination to the best in the musical canon"

   Alright, poetic start. Inspiring pupils to develop love music, talent as musicians, self-confidence, creativity, achievement; all great ideas. Develop critical engagement with music, allowing them to compose, and listen with discrimination...also all good.

   My gut reaction is, of course "Man, I hope they get more than the once a week thing I grew up with in elementary school before I joined band. That's a lot to try and fit into those 32 hours a year you see a student."

   The aims get more specific and break down three main areas

  • perform, listen to, review, and evaluate music across a range of historical periods, genres, styles, and traditions, including works of the great composers and musicians
  • learn to sing, create and compose music on their own and with others, have the opportunity to learn an instrument, use technology appropriately
  • understand and explore how music is created, produced, and communicated through pitch, dynamics, tempo, timbre, structure, and appropriate musical notations.
   So it took until the last two words to sneak musical notation in, tacked onto the end of what musicians call "the fundamentals of music." But is notation really fundamental?

    What's interesting to me is everything stated above until you hit those last two words, I could teach entirely without notation. If music is a language, then one could say that performing music is like speaking, and notation is like the written word. Except, there's a fundamental difference: even great musicians can't look at a score and hear the entire symphony in their head, especially if it's a symphony they've never heard! Musicians call that skill "Audiation." I believe it was coined by Edwin Gordon, and it was probably made most famous in "The Music Man" when Harold Hill discusses the "Think System." And, yes, I know that Gordon's theories on audiation are not the same as Hill's Think System, and that, yes, "The Music Man" Came out about 13 years before Gordon coined the term. But the idea of thinking about music, hearing it in your head, then playing it dates back much further than that...

   Point being this idea that the notation isn't realized until performance. We can "hear" a great deal in our heads, especially if we train ourselves to. But it's also a more difficult skill than learning music through action. Ok, so, learning music through action. That's a big part of many music education philosophies: Kodaly is all about learning music through singing, Orff is a combination of performing on specially designed percussion instruments, singing, and dancing (originally folk dancing), and Dalcroze/Eurythmics focuses a great deal on motion, the body, and singing (from an understanding of the body). Learning music by doing is a great thing. But does it require notation?

   Some of my favourite memories of learning Orff was learning about teaching composition to young students. We had all sorts of tools: felt or magnetic bars for bar notation (in this case, not having a traditional staff or rhythms, just short and long bars with relative height), various other symbols such as fruit and worms, and stories...

    I loved the stories. I loved the creativity that came along with writing a piece by using a story. The first exercises were "I'm going to tell you a story, when we reach certain parts, we'll come up with special music for it. Otherwise, we'll use ostinatos in the background (ostinatos are a big core of Orff playing)." The group would start playing, and after a little while, the teacher would say "It was a dark and stormy night. What would be good music for a storm?" You'd get through the piece, a little bit at a time, till the whole thing was learned, and the students could perform it. No "appropriate" notation required. Eventually, you can turn it into more games, having students come up with the next part of the story and the music. 

    You can also use a nice step-wise progression of "long and short" heighted (where you can see a difference in pitch height, but no staff lines) to get into long and short on a staff that corresponds to their pentatonic scale (when they're young, you keep the kids on pentatonic. Easier that way, no "wrong notes). The students can move things around, write new pieces, while slowly learning all the notation. It's effective, and a lot of fun. 

   I remember coming up with a game for fourth graders based on a twelve tone matrix--but instead of a twelve tone idea, it was a game of rhythms and melodies, made up of only a 6x6 grid, and overlays that could change the rhythms. You could flip the board any which way, read melodies "upside-down and backwards" and all that. But it still wasn't "appropriate" music notation--but it got to a much more "difficult" bit of musical thinking; how composers developed ideas to create new but related ideas. Heady for fourth graders. But what they saw was a game that they could manipulate, where a student could choose a path (and oh, they started choosing crooked paths, and I found that fun as well!) and we'd sing through the ideas together, me at the piano plunking it out first, then everyone singing with the piano, then just singing. But, still...no notation...

   And the kids were singing, or they were playing. No reading involved. Of course, if any of those students wanted to go into band or orchestra, they'd definitely need to learn to read music. But not everyone wants to do that...

   I guess I'm awkwardly moving to a point. The goal is fantastic to have. But, how many hours do you really get these young students in a general music class room? It becomes a bit of "what is 'most' important in all these important things." What do we really want younger students to get out of a music education, that can make a lasting impression, and keep with them forever.

   My school was an "odd" duck, and I accept that. There weren't too many students who, at one time or another, were not in band or choir. Granted, most of the band kids left by middle school, but they had time to learn a bit of an instrument, basics of reading notation, participate in concerts, etc. With choir in middle school, many joined up that preferred singing to band, and in HS when band and choir started overlapping, there was attrition between the two--but a vast majority still participated in one or the other at some point. Did those that didn't participate dislike music?

   Oh hell no--many were even more into music, just not that kind of music. What then, thinking about education from K-12 in the US, is really the purpose of music, and where does notation fit into that? One of the things I've always found unfortunate is that after elementary school, music education falls away for many students--if you're not in a band or choir, there isn't a music class for you. The idea being "well, everyone can sing, so if they want to sing, they can do music." Well, yes, that's true, but, what about everything else in music?

    What about those bits about being discerning, knowing the history, knowing the great composers? Did we all get that really well in band? I mean, Beethoven didn't write a HS band piece, and while there may be some odd arrangement of his third symphony for HS band, it's not really the same as learning the piece, is it? What about the use of technology, recording, etc? And exploring how music is created, produced, and communicated? It's almost as if we're saying "Hey, by the time you're in middle school in America, it's time to get 'serious' about this STEM thing, keep up your English in as much as being able to communicate is important, and the arts and other humanities can start to fall away." 

   Let me be blunt: classical music in America is dying, slowly, of old age. The audiences aren't getting younger, and we're not drawing them in. The ones that are drawn to that music were the students that were in orchestra, band, and choir in HS, which I accept is, normally, not a large percentage of the school. And even then, most start to fall away from "classical" music quickly. And then how many from HS go onto some degree in music, and then they either stick with it or fall away after undergrad.

    But there's this other music that's around, ya know, everywhere. Popular music, dance music, indie bands with ukeleles and mandolins (or mandoguitars), dance music, heavy metal, rap, on and on and on. And, some of these musicians learned to read music, might have even been heavily classically trained, and use that to their advantage. They come up with entirely creative things...

   Then there are those that don't read any music, and only think "holy crap, this guitar chord sounds awesome, and so does this one! and I can move between them! Hey, where are those lyric sheets, I bet I can come up with a melody for this...oh man, this is baller." They can read some tab, maybe chord symbols, but not "traditional" notation. Or they sit in front of a computer, making music all day, and coming up with unique sounds...without any knowledge of the acousmatic genre, Denis Smalley, or Pierre Schaeffer. 

   And we listen. We all listen. Constantly. iPods and iPhones are everywhere, people in their own worlds with their own soundtracks. I'm the odd one, being a musician, sitting here with only the sound of my fans, and clicking of keys and being more than content in the lack of music. And yet we have this horde of listeners, of people consuming music in a way that was unfathomable even 25 years ago. And definitely not 90 some years ago when Orff and his colleagues were coming up with Orff Schulwerk, or by Orff's death in 1982. 

   I sit here wondering, without answers, if, maybe, music education needs to shift with the times. By middle school, music education is mostly about performance. By high school it definitely is. Is that a dated mentality--no longer is music only consumed by it's playing, by attending a concert and getting a single chance to hear a song. Records, magnetic tape, and radio started changing how most people interact with music. The walkman gave mobility to the masses, and freedom from the radio. And now, instead of having a bulky collection of tapes or CDs, thousands of songs are stored a device that travels with us everywhere, earbuds in, tuning out the world. Has classical music missed the boat, holding on desperately to outdated models?

   I don't think the music itself is old--I think my music has something to say to this time, not 100 years ago, and maybe only slightly to 100 years in the future. But I do think how we approach music in education may be holding on far too much to old practices.

    What is the answer? No idea. I would love for everyone to be able to read music, enjoy playing an instrument (any instrument!), and interact with music through performance at home. It's romantic, this idea of salon music, music happening communally instead of individually, and with a more personal attachment to the music making. But do we fight for that idea, actively, or do we just hold to traditions for the sake of holding to traditions? And would more people be engaged by classical music if it was approached another way?

   I don't know...But it's something I think about a lot...About my role, as a living composer of "contemporary concert music," as a musician on an "antiquated" instrument like a trombone, and as an audio engineer that sees kids consuming and using technology without understanding what's happening. I don't know if there are any answers, but I often ask "what can I do?"
   I have some ideas on that...one is I'm not sure if teaching all students to read formal "appropriate" notation is the answer to "what can I do?" Especially since not everything I write uses "appropriate" notation by the standards of classical music.


The beauty of Portugal...

   Having now finished what seems like an exhaustive set of posts about June in Buffalo, I turn my attention to another side of my output. In my spare time, I research the analysis of interactive music, with extensions into multimedia as well. I've got a previous paper published in the proceedings of EMS-2012, and I've worked up a fair amount of future material as well. But this post isn't about my research--it's at best fledgling and somewhat naive, even though I'm doing what I can to tackle some difficult materials.

   Instead, it's about another conference. This time, I traveled to Portugal for EMS-2013--Electroacoustic Music in the context of interactive approaches and networks. Ah, now you see the relation to my preamble. My research is the reason I was able to participate in this great yearly event.

    Strangely, I didn't write about my experience last summer. More than likely I was in one of my lulls, moments when existence seems its most futile. Or perhaps I didn't have the words for the experience. So, a year later, I'll sum up briefly before hitting 2013.

    EMS-2012 was in Stockholm, Sweden. Coincidence? Not really--I had the idea for my Fulbright, but going to Stockholm, meeting people, and spending time at the conference cemented my resolve, and helped start important contacts. I presented the paper linked above. This paper was originally written for a course at UMKC taught by Paul Rudy--the analysis and aesthetics of electroacoustic music. Not too many of those courses taught in the US, and, obviously, it was worth every moment of my time.

    The conference itself was inspiring. I had never even tried to get into an academic conference before. First try and I'm off to Stockholm for one of the big EA conferences (the biggest of course being ICMC, but that one is a bit too big...and tech rather than analysis heavy. At least the organizers of EMS thought so...and most were on the board of ICMA!). It was an astounding experience. As with all conferences there were highs and lows. But I met Simon Emmerson, Michael Clarke, Rosemary Mountain, Bill Brunson, and many others. I even made friends my own age, that even a year later I still talk to online. And not just about research. LOL

    So, I entered EMS-13 with high hopes, but also with a clear mind. I'm not so foolish to think that my experience wasn't coloured. Oh no, as I slept and prepared my powerpoint between JiB and EMS, I knew full-well that the high of last year would not be repeated. That first experience is always memorable.

    And with that I flew to Portugal. Much was the same--I reacquainted myself with Simon, Michael, Rosemary, and Bill. I made some new friends, drank inexpensive beer, and talked about a great many things with a large number of people.

    I won't go through the papers, abstracts, and discussion with the same level of exactitude that I did with JiB. There's one major reason--my poor little head, even with my notes, the program book, and online resources, couldn't possibly wrap itself around so many topics.

    One of the few disappointments I saw in this conference compared to 2012 was the lack of cohesion. There was a topic (see above). And there were papers on it--Simon Emmerson, Pierre Couprie, a nice discussion of an installation by Ola Nordal (forgive the lack of accents...), a presentation on the Emo-Synth by Valery Vermeulen (MIND BLOWING!), John Colter's discussion of his sound-dome, and a few others. Again, I'm purposefully not being exhaustive. But there were, at most, maybe 8 presentations of the topic. The rest were wide-ranging, from philosophy and ontology, to listening strategies, to analysis of acousmatic works, to pedagogy. Many great presentations...but with the breadth of people flipping from subject to subject, it made it very difficult to follow and keep my head straight. Having a session with 3 papers, with 3 different topics, in 1.5 hours was a bit rough on my poor noggin.

    But that's a small complaint. What's really important is the context.

    Why would I fly all the way to Lisbon, Portugal for an academic conference about electroacoustic music?

     I reference a bit of my earlier post on why JiB is important for participants. One huge, but simple point--while we live in a world where information travels easily from continent to continent, we are all still very localized.

    Our concerns are, first, to our own lives. My life is currently in Kansas City. If you ask me about the contemporary music scene, or the electroacoustic scene, I know what's happening fairly well. I'm clued in slightly to the NY scene as well thanks to living in the region for a while. I know bits from friends who live all over the country.

    I do not know about the scene in Portugal beyond the existence of Joao Pedro Oliveira, and he doesn't currently live in Portugal. I do not know all the current research being done at De Montfort University in the UK regarding teaching EA music to K-12 learners. And even though I know Michael Clarke, we're not great friends, and I don't email him constantly asking about the development of TIAALS. And I just met Fredrick Dufeu (sorry, no accents), so I couldn't very well email him either.

    Even though these are people and places dealing specifically in what I do, I don't have constant contact with them. I'm worried about my local environment--as are most people.

    And that's the real reason I flew to Portugal, and why i'm going to do my damnedest to get to Berlin next year. Yes, presenting a paper, getting a publication possibility, and the professional side is great. Meeting all the people and making new friends, also great.

   But it's the ideas, the information, the reconnection to the global community that is so important for me. I come away with tons of new ideas, ideas that are not anything like what is happening locally. Things that, at times, stretch far beyond even what's happening on a state level or national level. And it puts into perspective just how different the systems are, how diverse interests worldwide are, and where I fit within a global society of musicians.

    It's invigorating to me, important professionally and pedagogically, and entirely worthwhile.

    FPV 2014--We're gonna change Berlin forever.


The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

   This is probably my last rant about this years June in Buffalo. Feel free to peruse the rest. And I do mean peruse, not skim.  

    Also, what follows may be Good, Bad, or Ugly. I don't know yet. Let me know what you think! Sorry to those that have synesthesia, as this may just be annoying or confusing.

   Whenever you go to a festival of any kind, it always happens: the awesome piece that blows you away; the bad pieces you shrug and try to forget; and the train wrecks that we wish we could un-hear/see but will stay with us forever.

    I said last time that I had no plans on writing reviews. This is still entirely valid. Instead, this is about concepts, philosophy, craftsmanship, and trends.

   There were 13 concerts during JiB. Over 7 days, that can drain a person. This is especially true when a large portion of the music is dense and challenging--awash with sounds, swirling timbres, and intense moments.

    The Good: 13 concerts usually means a wide variety of music. It can keep you on your toes and provide a myriad of experiences in a short time.

    The Bad: Coherence. Half the concerts, roughly, were of participant works or from the performance institute. These concerts caused lots of strain--sometimes things were so dissimilar it was hard to concentrate. Other times you end up with a concert that was nearly the same throughout. The concerts by visiting groups were much more well planned. This is just a side-effect from the judging process. (Remember, The Bad isn't The Ugly. Sometimes, The Bad just happens as a side-effect.)

    The Ugly: 13 concerts is unlucky. That means that there will be quite a few pieces you severely dislike. The Law of Ugly states that there will be one piece per concert that you revile. That's a lot of Ugly.


    That being said, what did I observe? Again, no specific critiques. Instead, let's look at some trends. Let's start with the concepts and philosophy of music, shall we?

    The Good: JiB had a large number of people that had strong, coherent philosophies. The variety was high (the previous Good, and something I'm holding onto as we move forward), and the conversations led to lots of peer learning. The most interesting were those far different than my own.

    The Bad: Sometimes, those philosophies, no matter how interesting when we were discussing them, just didn't work. The Good from this are the composers that stated "I was trying something, and, yeah, this was a danger. And it didn't go as I planned. Whoops..." The Bad was when they didn't see that it didn't really work the way they had hoped.

    The Ugly: When The Bad goes too far, it becomes Ugly. A failed philosophy is always a learning experience. The Good comes from learning, The Bad comes from ignoring the learning, The Ugly comes when it fails, you ignore the learning, and you are derisive toward other people's philosophies. Pieces fail--some philosophies are much harder to implement than others. Some ideas work wonderfully musically while others, well...may not be suited to music at all. This is fairly subjective, but not always--craftsmanship is a different Ugly, however. But remember that first Ugly--with 13 concerts, and The Law of Ugly in effect, sometimes things can go horribly wrong.

     The Good: When participants took the next step in a philosophical thought. They weren't rehashing John Cage, Helmut Lachenmann, Arvo Part, Tristan Murail, or Brian Ferneyhough. Instead, they were taking ideas and making a unique perspective, often times mashing up ideas. One of my favourites came from Andrew Greenwald, whose work reminds so much of the direction I had once been going many years ago. The philosophy was clear, the craftsmanship strong, and what came out was, whether you aesthetically like it or not, incredibly successful music. Yes, much of what he was doing owes itself to Lachenmann and those ilk, but it's "in the vein of" not a copy. And that is a Good distinction.

     The Bad: The same old philosophies of the aforementioned group (and more, of course), and copying of their styles, philosophies, and music. Put your own spin on things! Go out there and do something that is you! As Augusta Read Thomas said "Always put yourself into the music--you are what you listen to, but don't lose who you are." (this is paraphrased from two separate masterclasses, and is my interpretation of her words)

     The Ugly: Oh, it's not your idea, how this music should go? Oh, it's a bad copy of "So-and-So." Uh, ya know, "So-and-So," the guy that wrote these famous pieces? Don't know him? What about these guys? Dunno them either...What about this movement? Any of these pieces? Oh...hmm...well...uh, you should listen to those and examine what you wrote. The Ugly rears its head high when a composer is unaware of where his music fits in time, others that have done similar works in the past, and all the previous moments. When composers try to completely reinvent the wheel, it seems to turn into a square. And a square wheel is quite Ugly.


Onto something less subjective: craftsmanship. Certain styles require a huge amount of care in the creation All music requires a huge amount of care in its creation. All things, really. This blog-post is no different. Even as I try a different style of narrative, I'm constantly thinking about the craft--and am completely aware that I am a composer first, a trombonist second, an audio engineer third, a video game player fourth, a chef fifth, and somewhere down at place 72, a writer. And because of the narrative shift, every word will be carefully scrutinized, by myself and by my avid readership (HA! it's a joke).

      The Good: Ferneyhough, Thomas, Wyner, Murail, Felder, Wuorinen; they are all master crafters. Many of the participants were able, and sometimes even quite good at their craft. JiB actually had some of the finest crafter participant works of any festival I've attend. Granted, I don't go to many acoustic festivals, but that shouldn't alter things (electroacoustic or acoustic doesn't matter--at least, it shouldn't).

     The Bad: Certain things are difficult to be convincing. If you are writing in a triadically based Romantic style, you've got a lot of history going against you. The tradition dictates certain forms of construction, structuring devices, and forms. When you try something different, it's obvious what is different because the "learned" audience knows from whence it was derived. The Bad comes when it fails--a collective groan goes up as things go south. But, often times, there are redeeming qualities, and it turns itself into something the listeners can still make it through without anger.

     The Ugly: You've got an idea for a piece--whatever it is, you better do it all the way. Oh, crap, it's being somewhat half-assed. Uh-oh, it's entirely derivative and being half-assed. Well, maybe it'll go by quickly. THE PIECE IS TWENTY MINUTES?!? You've gotta be friggin' kidding me! No? The Ugly comes from these moments. Each moment isn't carefully considered and crafted. Maybe you're doing a specific construction, a fugue for instance, and you start to play with the idea of the fugue. That has to be incredibly carefully considered, each moment crafted as lovingly as possible. Or perhaps you're working from a framework of silence being of importance. Remember that when sound occurs surrounded by silence, the audience attends to that sound even more strongly. Make the sound worth it. If you don't, well...an audience following The Ugly isn't as forgiving as The Bad.

     The Good: The piece got in, made it's statement, and got out. Each moment was crafted, each idea and theme afforded the time it needed. This is a wonderful show of craftsmanship. At JiB, happily, it wasn't just the guest composers that pulled this feat off.

    The Bad: A piece slightly overstayed its welcome, was long-winded, or cut off without really saying what it needed to say. This happens to us all as we compose. Ferneyhough called me on it quite effectively. No man can avoid The Bad forever. The audience smiles a wane smile, the composer winces a bit as s/he realizes it didn't quite go as planned. Always be cognizant of time--Ferneyhough is good at it, Mozart and Bach are masters. Bruckner shows what long-winded speeches can say. And Feldman shows the kind of material that can be spoken like Old Entish--important things can take a long time to say. This relates to a theme in playwriting: the longest scene is often the most important. It's important to remember what Ferneyhough told me because he is quite correct.

   The Ugly: Did I mention 20 minute pieces? What about 45 minute? Ok, that only happened once and it did technically demand at least that much time. As stated above, often times The Ugly comes when The Bad has gone way too far, like those refried beans you had meant to throw away a couple weeks ago, and now the entire container is thrown away (or cultivated for a new kind of mold that seems to be all colours all at once). When you have an idea, say exploring a certain set of pitch relationships, you better know exactly how many relationships there are, how many permutations of those relationships there are, and the ways to best show them to the audience...because if you've only got about 20 permutations with only a few really effective ways of navigating them, and your piece goes for 20 minutes, well...You better be Morton Feldman and know how to craft all those moments.


    I think I've been vague enough not to ruffle too many feathers, but specific enough to make my points. It seems like The Good gets short-changed, but, for me at least, The Good always seems to be able to be recalled with only the slightest bit of description. Remembering that transcendantal moment, that sublime instant when all music made sense is something I revel. I hold those moments in brain as the fondest of memories. These are technically The Best, but they're only derived in relation to The Good. The Bad are common occurrences, things encountered at every concert. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right words, but we've all encountered them. The Ugly don't happen too often, but The Law of Ugly is pretty strict in its "One Per Concert" rule. But we block it out, so it's important to hold The Ugly up to a mirror.

    All three (or four, if you're lucky and get The Best as well) are equally important experiences. As a composer (or any artist), you will run into all these at various times in your own endeavors. We all try exceedingly hard for The Good; The Bad pops up often; we avoid The Ugly as best we can, but sometimes through stubbornness, bad luck, ignorance, or any number of other factors, The Ugly rears its deformed head; The Best is what we all dream for any performance--it's important to take it in context after The Euphoria fades from the performance and really work retrospectively critical.

    All in all, JiB was definitely a member of The Good. The Good outweighed The Bad and The Ugly. While following a standard statistical deviation in concerts, masterclasses and lectures where all members of The Good.

     I've done as JiB told me. Now onto his ornery aunt, Ems. Actually, they're not related, just happened within a week of each other this year.


The Performances! Oh, the Performances!!!

   This is a continuation of the series related to June in Buffalo. The original post has been updated with links to the topics listed by bullet points


   June in Buffalo is many things--lectures, masterclasses, rehearsals, and performances of attendees and by resident ensembles generally featuring the works of the guest composers. There were two performances every day during JiB, except Sunday that just had a performance by the Buffalo Phil.

   One of my first ideas going into JiB was to write concert reviews. That's been a running theme for me, eh? Not writing the reviews, but the IDEA of writing the reviews. But, after attending a few concerts, I thought better of it. My acerbic wit and biting criticism don't mesh well with the current climate of music criticism. Instead, I'll focus on broad themes rather than specifics.

   First off, the rehearsal experience with Ensemble Signal. Awesome. Rehearsals during JiB are often open. However, Brad Lubman, esteemed conductor for Signal, called for their first rehearsal to be closed. I thought (as most composers probably do) that this meant everyone but them. So I wandered in, shook some hands, and then Brad told me "The first rehearsal is closed to everyone. We'd like time along work through the piece, figure things out, then bring up concerns, ideas, and such tomorrow" (paraphrased, of course. It HAS been a month).

    My first reaction was "huh?" That was soon followed by "FUCK YEAH! GREAT IDEA! PEACE!!!" I didn't quite say it that way...but it was close. I think I said "Oh, that's a great idea! I have no real reason to be here anyway, I'm sure all of you "get" the piece and will do awesome. I'll drop by tomorrow then. Have fun!" Yeah, that seems more like what I said. I do wonder what they thought as I almost skipped out of the auditorium, more than happy to let an ensemble do what it will do.

    The next day I came by and there were, of course, concerns. A notational thing here or there, better to write things this way, this might sound better up an octave. I took a bunch of it in stride, made a few quick choices, scribbled all over a score. When asked, I made quick decisions, described what I wanted, frowned when I realized things didn't work and scribbled away. I never once asked them to stop, rather content to accept my defeats and fix them in a resulting later draft. There were only a few small changes to things, namely a few horn bits that moved from stopped to open, and a note or two changing octaves. Easy stuff.

     What happened in the concert, however, was exactly what I wished to have happen. I wished my piece came later in the week, being on the second attendee concert only gave the piece so much "weight." Perhaps I should say...levity? The first two pieces were fairly long, somber, and somewhat Romantic in style. I glanced around the auditorium often, seeing people straining to keep attention through the 15+ minute works. We were all still acclimating--not quite used to the week, but not quite falling over tired (as happened on Saturday during a particularly long concert). We were adjusting.

    The first couple concerts provided music that were somewhat expected--the first was percussion ensemble Talujon playing attendee works. Most of the pieces went well over 10 minutes, up into the 15+ range. There was an extreme focus on timbral combinations, which is quite in vogue these days. The evening concert with Talujon and JACK went from classics, such as Reich's Drumming, to a newer Ferneyhough work, Exordium. Still, the landscape was what I expected in most "new music" concerts.

    I tell you this to setup what happened when Signal play All Things Are Not Equal--Sinfonietta Edition. This piece is not standard new music fare. It's a jazz/funk/groove piece reorchestrated for a classical group. It's what a jam band might play on a Saturday night gig when everyone wants a solo (along with Street Cleaning, of course). My thought, in re-orchestrating the piece, was to create something that a group could put on a concert that'd change the mood, break the all too powerful fog of concentration, and give everyone something fun to do.

   My piece starts with what I'd like to think of as a fake out. It's not the most convincing fake out (Augusta Read Thomas had some things to say about it...), but, it's something that I think, in context, worked really well. Everyone hears large snap pizz chords in a somewhat off kilter rhythm. The winds come in, same idea, then--glissandi, harmonics, a smattering of melody in the horn. It's just a fake out...

    In a concert of new works, the hope is the beginning gets people thinking "Ok, some sort of post-minimalist thing, maybe some sort of standard new music idea..."

   Then the groove starts. And it's funky. In fact, it's a pretty straight forward funk tune.

    And then the groove keeps going. and going. Little bits layer in over top, but it's about that groove. Then, the groove switches, and solos start.

    By the time the solos start, I'm hoping everyone has gotten the joke, and tongue in cheek "HA! It's a funk/jazz tune and you thought it was gonna be something else! Now relax, because music can be fun!"

    After the piece finished, the applause was more than polite. I won't say it was "enthusiastic" but it was an applause that definitely said "Thank you!" Thank you for something different, thank you for a breath of fresh air, thank you for something that's nothing more than what it is, simply, music.

    Ensemble Signal played the hell outta the piece. They made it work. They deserved the clapping far more than I. And I did what any good composer would do, offered to buy them drinks. Sadly, they didn't come out to the post evening concert carousal, but my pocket book probably thanks them for it. I WOULD have bought an entire round--with 9 players, that would have a been a bit expensive, but completely worth it.

    A final quick note. I waited till the aisles cleared a bit, then bee-lined for the stage, shaking hands, sincerely offering drinks, and congratulating all around. One other composer had headed down quickly...the others headed down after I started shaking every hand in sight. Always remember to thank the performers during your applause AND after the concert! Music happens on stage, after all. Don't be timid or nervous about it, but jump right into the fray. I'm NOT particularly a people person, and I dislike crowds in small spaces (by dislike, I meant I have some mild anxiety about it), but I am always as gracious as possible to my performers, no matter how tight the bar happens to be.


The series is moving right along. Perhaps I'll talk about some more generalities on what I heard at the concert, as far as "good, bad, and ugly." But, more than likely, I'll wrap up some ideas later. There was, after all, this academic conference in Portugal I went to where all sorts of interesting things happened...



The Importance of Leaving...

...the goddamn bubble. I remember in undergrad, professors always spoke of the "DePauw bubble." I didn't get out a whole lot during undergrad, but I luckily had enough sense to realize that what I was doing probably wasn't new, exciting, or different, and that people had great ideas all over.

   During my Masters, I didn't have to go out much. Something about Brooklyn, NYC, and being around a wide variety of composers. I definitely didn't go out nearly enough, and that's my own fault. But I did listen to a lot of new music. No festivals or anything like that though--my mentors at BC weren't too keen on the competition circuit, and neither was I.

   A piece of me agrees with my teachers during my masters--the competition and festival circuit can be a bit of a racket. Lots of submissions ask for money, and there's only so much I'm willing to shell out for competitions. You've got to pick and choose.

   But it's important to go, especially if it's an opportunity with guest ensembles, lots of composers, and possibly guest lectures and masterclasses. Even the smaller festivals can provide experiences that your institution probably can't.


    This is a continuation of my series based on my experience at JiB. Past entries include posts about Charles Wuorinen and entrepreneurship, Brian Ferneyhough and treating music properly, and Augusta Read Thomas, Yehudi Wyner, and criticism.

    Going into JiB, I knew what it was: it's more than a festival, more like a week long hardcore workshop. You work with an ensemble, go to tons of concerts, a few masterclasses, and lectures. You attacked by music. From 9am-9pm, I was busy with some requirement, with brief moments to grab food between them--that's the one big issues with JiB...it can be difficult to find dinner!

   In one week, I met 20+ composers, far more than my department turns over in year. 20 new people, with new ideas, and new music. There were four special guest composers giving masterclasses (Raphael Cendo, Ferneyhough, Thomas, and Wyner), another guest lecture (Wuorinen), and of course David Felder. There's also rehearsals with an ensemble, in my case Ensemble Signal. That's more new faces than I meet in a standard semester at any of the schools I've attended, and all the people came prepared with their own music and presentations.

   But it's ever so important. First off, you gain a much wider view of music. What ARE people doing around the country? What approaches are being taken? It's a difficult thing to understand when you're stuck in your department. You gain new techniques and new appreciation.

    You gain friends, contacts, and associates. Your name gets known to a wider group of a people, people that you can call when you need a drink in a foreign city, or who may run ensembles themselves one day. The ensemble that plays your piece may like the piece and keep it around. A music critic may hear your concert, enjoy your piece, and want to do a write-up.

    Let's be honest, those things don't happen too much on most campuses. Of course, there are exceptions (Manhattan based schools, I'm looking at you!) but even the more "professional" concerts I've done in KC go unreviewed, and the contacts remain somewhat minimal...granted I suck at hobnobbing afterwards, which probably limits the contacts heavily.

     In the masterclasses, you have a chance to make an impression with a well known composers--this could ingratiate you, and they therefore remember your work when it comes time for judging a competition. Yeah, that is a horribly grim outlook on it, but it's entirely true. Nepotism in music is a very real thing, and until the next generation decides to forgo it and become a "meritocracy," we're stuck with it.

    The biggest thing is the music and the ideas. JiB is unique in that you're somewhat forced into groups thanks to the masterclasses. After a day or two, you've found at least a small clique worth hanging out with. Or, if you're like me, you'll flit around a bit at the periphery--it's not that I disliked anyone, it's that I dislike large groups, and those had a tendency to form!

   Still, the thoughts flowed freely. Composers discussed each others music, their institutions, gave and received advice, socialized, told stories, got drunk. And listened to music. So much music. Minds were expanded, exploded, and changed.

   That's really what festivals are about. A good festival/conference/workshop will invigorate you. New ideas will come rushing in, old ideas will be made more clear, and new friends will challenge or affirm your positions. Someone like Charles Wuorinen will incite a group into heated discussions, while the direct criticism of Ferneyhough will make an entire room really delve into what they could improve.

    And it's this influx of ideas, the meeting of minds that is so important. It's easy to get stuck--four years in undergrad, two or three for a masters, two to four for a doctorate. Same three or four teachers revolving around, you form your clique and maybe hear some different music. You might have one new complexity guy, a hardcore French-style acousmatic composer, maybe a spectralist, a neo-Romantic, a sound artist, and a couple post-minimalists. And you'll get along, but in the end, you'll face the same questions and affirmations.

    It's great to see how people across the country (or world) deal with music. And it's as important for development as standard schooling.

    So yes, it can be a racket. It can be a pain in the ass. But festivals are worthwhile and important experiences for musicians of all ages. Just be sure to research what you're getting into first before sending in your app and fee. And find yourself some funding through grants.

   And then head off for an experience that will fill in tons of gaps left by a "traditional" educational model.