Phenomenology, Metanarratives, and Classical Audiences

Just last week, I wrote a post discussing similarities I saw between metal audiences and classical music crowds (both orchestral and new music). Yesterday, I stumbled upon an article at New Music Box by Sam Hillmer entitled "Audience Cultivation in American New Music." This comes at a time when a certain Kyle Gann blog post railing against Modernist music, and a Telegraph article reporting on some comments made by Sir Peter Maxwell Davies. And there is this bit of journalism floating around about a study that suggests classical musicians should improvise. On top of all this, a good friend of mine who is working on bringing Heidegger and music analysis together started asking me about metanarratives.

Of course, there's only one possible quip when asked about metanarratives:
one narrative to rule them all, one narrative to find them
one narrative to bring them all, and in darkness bind them
Perhaps a bit melodramatic. However, it's amazing to me that this conversation about metanarratives and phenomenology comes up at the same time five posts appear that basically represent these ideas. Since it was on my mind, I decided to look at a few of these posts with these philosophical thoughts in mind.

First off, Hillmer. I'm known, in some circles, for flitting back and forth between incredibly dense writing to snarky, yet accessible writing. This article falls fully on the incredibly dense. It is Hillmer's attempt at Husserl and Heidegger (somewhere in the middle, I suppose, between an epistomological and existential stance) , a philosophical comparison of the NYC DIY and new music scenes. To simplify a long article into a glib sentence: DIY (or the more European DIT) and new music ensembles should working together; new music ensembles should be fine with playing in bars where audiences act and dress differently than in concert venues; and DIY artists shouldn't fear new music festivals, and attempt to make contact with that scene.

Oversimplification at it's finest. I could write an entire post sorting through Hillmer's arguments, but, instead, I want to posit a different theory. His critique is inherently anecdotal, and reflects a specific scene. Hillmer does not make this a secret--it's stated up front, but it's easy to lose sight of this over the course of the long, dense article. There is one over-arching principle, however, that I find odd--the idea that the audiences are so incredibly different. This is the metanarrative if you will, the pulled out view to a create a dichotomy that can only exist in a large, general scale.

But what's the narrative of the situation? In other words, what happens at a single concert that can be observed (and therefore measured)? And what do repeated studies show? Well, the only major, long term study of audiences is via TV--Nielsen. But what of an experiential approach?

From that, and I think Hillmer will agree when I say this, there isn't "an audience" for DIY or classical music concerts. There's not "an audience" for anything. When playing in a bar, you have several audiences: the regulars, who showed up before there was a cover, come regularly (perhaps every day), and are not there for your music. They can be loud, talk to friends, party, etc. Essentially, they're not there for the concert. They can become your audience, but it's often a more tough sell; there are casual concert goers--it's Friday night, they're looking for something to do, and they know this bar often has music they like. They don't know your band, but are receptive because past experience has shown that this site has provided entertainment. They're the middle group, oscillating between becoming big fans, and generally ignoring you; there are the "dragged in," a forced audience coming because the rest of the group is going. They're often hostile; there's the "Other musicians checking out the competition." Depending on the type of scene, they'll run the gamut from supportive to hateful; then there are "fans," people that came for your show, and are there to support you. This is just a small sample of different possible demographics within "the audience."

Here's what I've seen--people who come for the concert are, generally, quiet during the music. They'll do whatever is appropriate for the style (lighters in the air swaying, headbanging, air drumming, screaming after songs, clapping after solos, etc). Then there are people who just happen to be there.

The classical world, generally, doesn't have too many "happen to be there." Most of those are "dragged in," force audience members who make incredibly humorous videos. But, again, I won't take any more time on this, but to say beware distilling the concert experience down to a metanarrative, a "we're so different, let's learn from each other." I'd like to see more posts that do more "this is how we're the same;" in other words, the DIT idea manifest in blog form.

As for Kyle Gann, and many other critics, it's their job to take a specific stance. The views expressed are his own. The danger comes when Gann starts to project on the audience. Let's look at experience again--his view is well known. He's invited to a festival, where certain people agree with his view (therefore solidifying it), and those that disagree with his view (which do little to sway him). Again, he breaks the world into a dichotomy, a long-shot of "him vs. them," modernity vs. post/minimalism fusion. There was a time I agreed with most of what Gann wrote. There was a time when I disagreed vehemently. Now, I take it as one more narrative, a possibility among a large, but finite number of possibilities. Beware being dragged into the contention--funny advice coming from someone who has been as reactionary as I.

As for Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, the man that first got the conversation of metanarratives rolling, I would like to see his specific comments, not quotations in the Telegraph. I read these as a critique on music education, one which I actually agree with. However, he's mixing generalities with specifics--students should learn these things, and they're not, in his experience. His experience is the education system of the UK. In the last year and a half, I've met quite a few people working on changing the music education curriculum, specifically to include studying electroacoustic music. In the US, of course, we have issues in music education, from lack of funding, class time, academic study for all students after a certain period, and a focus on performance. These ideas fluctuate a great deal based upon location--at one MS I was familiar with in the US, the music teacher had built her own textbook, was very active in her teaching, and worked on a wide variety of topics. At my middle school, there was no academic music.

My friend was concerned with Davies choice of a metanarrative that shows superiority of classical music. That, of course, can be an issue. Is a trend starting to pop up? Popular metanarratives are dichotomous and present an "us vs. them" attitude. It's about a choice that must be made, and once it is made, that is all. When I took playwriting courses, my teacher spoke often of keeping each individual choice to "Either/Or," a fork in the road. There can be lots of different choices, but each choice should be simple, this or that.

In a play or a movie, this can be powerful. However, it also reinforces an attitude that is ever prevalent--this or that, us vs. them, either/or, a choice between to opposing forces. Tolkein used in effectively as a metanarrative, but the narrative itself was painted in vivid, swirling colours, not black and white. And if one chooses to delve into the Silmarillion, the "good vs. evil" starts to blur a bit, as we see where the corruption comes from. The same can be said with David Eddings and his two series, the Belgariad and the Mallorean. The entire structure is built around a choice, this path or that path. Forks are abound, and, yet, each sentence is painted in more vivid colours. Characters are fleshed out, situations are incredibly complicated and often have more than one choice present. The characters even point out "Wait, there's more choices than this," and yet get shoehorned into a set of preordained choices.

This is something powerful to think about, and why phenomenology is an interesting road to take when analyzing these problems. And why studies involve more than five people.

To that last article that has been getting praise, it's important to remember the circumstances. The generalization is made: "studies suggest musicians should improvise." First off, suggests is the keyword. Second, the study involve five people, three performers and two audience members. In other words, a non-reflective sample size. This is where metanarratives and generalities just don't work. And why scientific studies number participants in the thousands, and even then, generally only show small subsections of opinions. Does improvisation affect the brain? Probably. Will it affect every brain the same way? Neurology says more than likely. Will these have the effect on each person? No. That's the wonderful difference between neurology, psychology, and philosophy; the physical, mental, and the meta-physical/spiritual.

What is experienced can be the same--if everyone reading this gets a paper cut on the edge of their index finger of the same size, created by the same paper, and with all other factors being equal, we will have the same cut. But how often does this happen in the real world? Everyone will experience it differently based upon past experiences, running a gamut from not even noticing to fainting. The science of distilling these large experiences into a working philosophy is part of phenomenology. It's becoming a lost art, I'd say.

Because reading these articles shows how people tend toward generalized metanarratives when, in fact, we haven't reached that point of investigation yet. Do these comparisons help?

They do, in that they are conversation starters. Since Hillmer's post, I've seen it shared in both positive and negative lights. Same with Gann and Davies. The study has just been an "oo, neat," since most people sharing realized that a sample size of five a study does not make.

I think, however, it's time we move away from these generalization, these base comparisons of "us vs. them," and move into what Hillmer comes to at the end--a "DIT" or "Do It Together" stance. By this, I mean we need to discard our metanarratives, generalizations, and conceptions of the idea. There is no "audience." There is no "us vs. them." We exist in different spaces, and are perceived differently, for a large amount of reasons. By "we" I truly mean everyone, every type of music, every nearly infinite (but not quite infinite), possibility. Only then, when we acknowledge that there is no one "classical music audience" or "DIY audience" or "Noise audience," but a group of individuals who may share like characteristics, but also have widely differing views of the world, will we really be able to move forward. So, perhaps, a move toward a narrative model, a poststructuralist view of the audience.

Because as philosophers discovered long ago, Truth and Fact are not the same thing.


Metal or Classical Music concert?

***Note--everything below is from limited anecdotal evidence from my time in Sweden so far.

I'm still learning a lot about the local metal scene here in Stockholm, but I'm finding trends very quickly. Last night I went to a different club, Rocks, to catch Obscyria, Nominon, and Protector. Three bands, three different starting decades, three bands that had a lot in common...

with classical music.

I wonder how many scoffed when I said that? There have been studies done showing links in mentality. There are discussions on internet forums with people tossing out theories as to why there's a link. There are programs jumping up in metal studies, a conference dedicated to metal music, and some nice journalism with interviews comparing backgrounds of musicians from both walks of life.

But this isn't new information. I came to Stockholm looking for these influences, as well as folk, myths, and political statements.

What I'm finding is different, but equally fascinating.

When I showed up for my first show at PĆ¼ssy A Go Go, I wasn't sure what to expect. Fellow-Fulbrighter Tom Ward is an avid metal fan, and having already been in town the year new the scene knew where to go. Can't even begin to thank Tom enough for pointing me to the right clubs. We met for that first concert, and he gave me some info: expect everyone to be pretty respectful; the moshpit is up front, but it's more fun than insane; for how hardcore the music is, it's laid back.

I wasn't sure what to expect. You hear stories like this from nearby Norwegian bands, or think about the first Ozzfest when it came to Indy, and how the entire center section of the GA grass section turning into a vortex of death, followed by the majority of sod being pulled up and thrown around. These are the experiences we hear about on the news, or see in person--yes, I was at that Ozzfest, got hit by sod, ran in the vortex, flipped off a camera, and a Coal Chamber shirt that had "Don't Fuck With Me!" printed on the back. Said shirt later got me in trouble...and sadly, I have no idea where it went.

But, as I'm finding out, it's not really how the Stockholm scene is dealing with these metal bands. Instead, I see correlations to classical music concerts.

1) Attire. Classical music has it's "specific formal wear." Onstage with an orchestra, it's a tux. And, boy, are there people who hate tuxes. So then we get the newer chamber groups, with flashy modern dress garb. You end up with two groups--concert black, which now means an all black clothing, something a little nice, but no suits; or black with flair, some sort of bright accented colour. No matter what people try to do with classical music, we still end up conforming to our little groups. And that's not always a bad thing.

Go to a metal concert with three bands, what do you see? Everyone on stage is probably wearing a band shirt--and not necessarily for their band. In fact, it's often NOT for their band. In the audience? Band shirts, leather jackets, leather vests with patches from a hundred bands. Surprisingly uniform. Sadly, I left my couple band tees in the US, and I tend to leave my hoody on, so I stand out like a sore thumb. If it wasn't for my long hair and bushy beard, I probably wouldn't fit in at all. Though, that's more a stereotype and not something I see that often.

I'm seeing this less as a class issue--there is of course issues of class attached to types of clothing. I always chaffed at wearing tuxes because I am most definitely not of a class of people who would normally wear a tux. And I have a thick neck.

I'm seeing it as a form of bonding, creating a unique experience, and adding to the "ritual" of the occasion. Shared dress, shared mannerisms, a community made manifest in the physical world.

2) Respect. It's interesting, there's always a fight about not knowing when to clap, and people feeling awkward at a classical concert because they don't understand the conventions. And then there are interruptions via cell-phone, no flash photography, and other rules. As a classical musician, I never cared if people clapped between movements, even though it can ruin the flow...and I think part of that falls on performers on how they choreograph the movement changes. People regard orchestra concerts as stuck up and stiff. During many new music concerts, the paradigm has shifted to a more relaxed attitude. But, one should still be respectful (don't yell in the middle of the song)

Flash to a metal concert in Stockholm. Crazy concerts, intense bands, screaming, headbanging, photography...Well...kind of.

There's definitely headbanging. The majority is up front. Wanna headbang? Join the group doing it up front! Want to do it where you are? Also fine, but keep to your own area.

Screaming! Haven't heard it at all. Not even a lot of talking during songs--there's a little, usually in the next room (where the bar is). But if you're in the live room, you're there for the music. There's no need for a convention saying "Don't talk," because the people there aren't talking--they're attending to the music. There's some singing along, but not often (Well, except when someone is pulled on stage).

Mosh pit! What's a metal show without a mosh pit?!?

I've been in moshpits in the US. They're grungy, nasty things--elbows and fists fly. I take the glasses off when I go in because they will come flying off...and then someone will step on them, then punch me in the face.

Ok, hyperbole...a bit. But even for tame "pop-metal" groups like Bullet for My Valentine, the mosh pits can be dangerous places.

A most pit in Stockholm? Well, there's a lot of head banging. Then someone will start pinballing, hitting shoulders. Arms are tucked. Fists and elbows are not flying. There's shoving...and laughing. Lots of laughing. in fact, I've never been to concerts with so many happy people.

When someone crowd surfs, it's amazing. The group comes together and holds the person up. There's no jerk trying to pull him down. There's no "inappropriate" touching. When someone stage dives, they are caught and carried, laughing, the length of the club...to be carefully set down with everyone involved almost falling over in pure mirth.

I actually almost have a tear in my eye because, to me, that scene was beautiful.

It was pure respect and fun. Here are these guys, screaming about death, murder, Satan, dark pacts, etc...and they're all smiling ear to ear and laughing. Even when the bar got so packed I couldn't move, and there was some light shoving to get to the bar...it was always light, with a nod and a smile.

Respect, pure and simple. The people have come to hear this music, with all its thrash and doom. And that's what they want to do. If you're at the bar, talk away. If you're screaming in the club, you get a few looks--no shooshes or someone yelling "STFU," but a look of "Hey, aren't you here for the concert?"

Oh, there is flash photography, but no one seems to mind. But then, for all those groups, playing their music is second nature--you'd have to rip the guitar from their hands to have them miss a note. With a new music group with three or four rehearsals to put together the latest "new complexity" piece, it takes every ounce of concentration. So, I'll defend the "please, as few distractions as possible."

3) Small groups, made up of other musicians and a few hardcore followers.

I went to a new club last night. I saw a ton of the same people. Some have even started smiling at me in recognition (Soon, I'll be in the group!). And, as I'm finding out, many are in their own bands, or were in bands. Then there are the followers--obvious family members, or significant others. Then, there are the people like me, who will go to just about every concert. All in all, for the concert last night which was packed, probably 150 people. Considering how "big" Nominon and Protector are (in the niche), it'd seem like there'd be more...

But it's important to remember, even in the land of metal, it's still niche. I still got made fun of by a  prick in a rugby shirt coming out of a club--"Have a good time? Rock on! " "Hej hej! Thanks, the concert was awesome. Have a pleasant evening " Pretty sure he was more confused by my reaction than I was surprised by his. It's a niche that's demonized (though not as much in Sweden), and misunderstood (everywhere).

This sounds so much like what we hear in the "Crisis of Classical Music" conversation. The audience is getting older. We're playing mostly to ourselves. Any slight deviation from the norm will scare the audience, and we'll lose them. Find alternate venues and ways to put your music on!

It's interesting, because metal takes the opposite approach in some ways. They've stuck to their traditional attitudes--death metal from the late 80s sounds a lot like death metal being written now. They still play tiny, hole in the wall clubs...when, honestly, the concert last night would have done well someplace a bit larger. Definitely someplace where more than 75 people can be in the live room. 

The audience is the same, and yet, the metal audience doesn't shrink, it stays about the same size. Why? Two bands I've seen were pretty young, Obscyria and Insane (Sweden, not Italy). New music, traditional modes, younger audience following the younger bands. Why are younger generations still interested?

No answers, just questions to ponder.

4) Traditionalism. You won't find two groups more based in the traditional.

When Opeth came out with "Heritage" it was automatically decreed as not being death metal, not even really being metal. Maybe prog metal or melodic metal, but definitely not death metal. This upset some of their base. It also brought in the audience for more prog metal styles. Yes, they are different audiences, though there is overlap (just like the audience for Brahms may not be the audience for Mozart).

As musicians grow, change, and evolve, there's push-back from the traditional crowd. There's a reason bands from the late 80s like Protector still tour actively--the traditional group loves them. They have the attire, lyrics, amazing instrumentals, screaming. If there's a derivation, it's something else.

Orchestra vs. new music. Death metal vs. prog metal. Cassettes vs CDs. Live concerts vs. streaming. It's the question of traditional vs. progressive. The fight over attire can be seen in this light. The evolution of the music itself can be seen this way.

There will always been audience for the traditional. There will always been an audience for progressive. There will, invariable, always be an audience for any given style or genre of music. It may not be a large audience, audiences will overlap, and people's tastes are fickle, but there will be an audience. And there will always been an audience for concerts that like to mix everything up.

And, yes, I still see cassettes being sold at concerts.


These are just a few points where I'm seeing nice correlation. There's also a very good chance these ideas could be spread to broader generalizations of how people interact with music in general. In fact, there are at least three or four general theories above that I've encountered in my studies. But, sometimes, more specific (thought still broad) examples can help see that we're not alone.

That is perhaps the biggest issue I'm having in the "musician of the 21st century" talk--too often the conversations seem to have blinders on; we think the challenge is unique to classical music; that it's the first time in history; that we have to reinvent the wheel.

But what's happening is not isolated to classical music. Trends, ideas, and experiences are much more widely spread than we are taking into account. We do need to prepare classical musicians for modern trends in music--we're already far too late. And we should be looking to other groups to see how they've kept their scene together, melding traditional and progressive. All this without reinventing the art-form itself.


Conditions, preconceptions, and assumptions

There's been a flurry of activity these days revolving around those buzzwords. Jeffrey Nytch wrote a case-study on how he took an idea for a symphony, and spun it into a commission and performances. If you haven't read it, and gone through all the comments, go for it. It shows some classic ideas in internet-ethics...namely, read the whole article, read the entire reply, and take a moment to think about it. Jeffrey and I actually came to a pretty good understanding, once we got done circling each other for a few test rounds (I'm sure the internet cried...I have a feeling it started out looking like two boxers squaring off, only to go into the middle and shake hands).

Now, to build off of those comments, as well as previous posts. One of the main points I've been making is philosophical, a "chicken and the egg" type koan: piece/idea or consumer first?

I'm purposefully using the word consumer not audience. Yes, it is giving it a negative impression. That was my intent. "You can't just have your characters announce how they feel! That makes me feel angry!" is true of literature, but not of blogs, it appears. No subtlety to be had today.

Many people have said "Why can't you think about an audience? What's wrong with putting them first? Aren't you writing your music for people?" Others point to the "If you write something, and no one hears it because no one will play it, have you made music? You have to make compromises."

Those questions miss my point. We're really dealing with three things: conditions, preconceptions, and assumptions.

First, conditions. I've gotten a few commissions in my life. Nothing fancy, usually a soloist asking me for a piece, sometimes an ensemble. When someone asks me for a new piece, we go into talks--there's the nitty gritty "how many performances? How much can you send me? What's the nicest bottle of wine in your price range? I prefer Jura..." Business is business, for me an unsavory portion of what I do.

But then we get down to what does the performer need, what do they think they want, and how do we come to a consensus. These are one set of conditions.

These conditions include things such as length, instrumentation, and possibly some special requests. When you write for an orchestra, you know, roughly, what instruments are available. However, these conditions are always starting points--"So...you said unaccompanied trombone...how about trombone and electronics?" "You said you wanted it ten minutes...is seven minutes good? This idea has run it's course, so I either have to do another movement and go over ten, or sit at seven." For an orchestra, this could be doubling questions, availability of instruments (So...you're a small orchestra...can I use harp? What about two harps?), and even length issues (Hey, you said opener...you sure? I mean, I COULD do a thirty minute piece...oh, you're sure...positive? Alright, fine...).

I think of these the same way as I think of all the other conditions I set when not writing a commission--I still decide instrumentation, length, and then all the points of the piece. Personally, I always lay down conditions early in the composition process. There may be notes scattered here and there, little motives or ideas, maybe even a sketch of about a minute or so, but those are normally just used to set conditions (pitch, rhythm, form, etc.).

Then we have preconceptions. These are the ideas that we bring to the table thinking we know what's right, only to find out how wrong we were. This may be a special request from a performer (I really wanna do beat-box flute!) that doesn't jive with the composer at all. A preconception is an idea that is malleable. It's going from "I want an extended passage of sound-text in this" to incorporating the idea and technique into several passages as a timbral and rhythmic motive. These are musical preconceptions.

We change our preconceptions on a regular basis. New ideas are presented to us, and our view is changed. It's what happens after that first rehearsal, and you rush to make a flurry of changes, because what you thought a passage sounded like was not what it actually sounded like (and synthesized performance by notation software be damned!). It's hearing rumors about a certain person, being afraid for that first meeting, then realizing they're awesome. Or vice-versa. Preconceptions are bumps in the road, where if we're careful, we could end up flying into a ravine, or flying into the air on a magical carpet ride. (Point...you're totally singing one of two songs aren't you?)

Assumptions are the mind-killers. Business seems to be made of assumptions, this strange idea that, somehow, a person knows exactly what a person needs. Sometimes these assumptions pan out, but, often, they don't. An assumption is a preconception gone terribly wrong.

Apple made a big gamble with the iPhone. Job's wasn't even behind the idea at first, having to come around to it. The idea was simple: people didn't seem to want three devices for making phone calls/getting texts, getting email, and playing media. Those "dark times" pre-iPhone when people carried a BlackBerry, a phone, and an iPod. Then people switched to a BlackBerry and an iPod. Though, if you lived in NYC, it seemed it was a BlackBerry, an iPod, and something to text, usually through T-Mobile.

It was assumed people would want this product. And they were mostly right, though as time moved on, they realized just how much more people wanted mobile computers that could occasionally act as a phone rather than a phone that could somewhat act like a computer. The idea, the basic conditions (make a device capable of these three things) was sound. The assumption rang true. And now the iPhone is lauded in showing how you can identify a market and then corner it (then slowly lose it to Android, because you won't back off from other assumptions, such as "people will only use iTunes.").

But where does this work into music? What is the biggest assumption I see continuously?

"We know what the audience wants."

This is a mighty large assumption. What makes you believe you know what the audience wants? The nationwide survey done by the NEA? There's a big problem with using nationwide surveys to steer a local group--namely your group is not really working for the entire nation.

Or anecdotal evidence. My friends tell me the audience loved this piece. They applauded more loudly for Beethoven than Chittum. Obviously, more Beethoven is needed. There's also a danger here, and an assumption--that all music can be fairly judged on a single listening; that the "audience" for Beethoven is the same as for Chittum; that there is a homogeneous audience for this group.

These are dangers, mostly, of business, and we're seeing them regularly, from programming decisions to lockouts and contract issues. But these assumptions can also be dangerous for composition.

Setting out to write a piece "for an audience" means you have to ask an incredibly difficult question first: who is my audience? Marketing professionals do this all the time, and usually come up with some wonderfully "meaningful" answers, such as "Women, age 30-45, single, no kids, wanting to connect with their younger days" or "Men, age 16-24, hipster." Those demographics then get parsed into stereotypes about the group, and then the idea pandered to their exact wants.

Who is the audience for your piece? Is it the symphony audience? Which symphony? Your local symphony? What does your local symphony audience actually like? How do you know? What's your best guess?

Here's a bit of info that should free you from this question: no matter what kind of music you write, there will be an audience. I went to a metal club last night and saw two thrash bands, Insane (from Sweden), a young group that didn't even look of age to be in the club; and Deathhammer, a thrash band from Norway that was everything you'd expect from a thrash metal band from Norway, including the frontman being on some type of drugs. There were well over 100 people in attendance by the time Deathhammer took the stage.

100 people might not seem like much, but it beats many of the new music concerts I went to in Kansas City. There's an audience for this underground thrash metal, just like there's an audience for the more gloomy death metal I've seen, the most avant-garde of new music, Miley Cyrus, Massive Attack, and Beethoven. They are not all the same audience, though there is overlap.

I take a very different approach. My assumption is that there is someone, somewhere, that will probably like my music. I may not have met this person, but if I keep trying, I will. I assume if I write music that I like, that I find interesting, engaging, and moving, then more than likely, someone else will.

It's still an assumption. We can't be rid of assumptions entirely. And the point of this isn't to say "Do away with all assumptions! Assume nothing! Face all your preconceptions!" I'm not "new-age" enough for that. I accept that I will always assume things, I will always have preconceptions, and I will always deal with conditions. Instead, I offer a different path.

Change the meaning of an assumption to allow for change. Don't base assumptions on incomplete data. Don't let preconceptions become fixed in stone, and ruin meetings over your controlling nature. And push against conditions if your expression is leading you in a different direction, while accepting conditions that cannot be changed. Conditions can lead to very interesting creative moments, after all.

This is why I never think of "what the audience would like" when I set out to create a piece. I don't shoot to create an "audience pleaser." I aim to create something that doesn't deal in assumptions (beyond I assume someone will like this), challenges my preconceptions, and is always built around the push and pull of the myriad of conditions placed upon the piece. To do anything less would be to betray myself and the audience.

The audience is important, and therefore, we should kill the assumption that we know what's best for them. Why not let the audience decide?


How video games save my life

***UPDATE: according to Extra Life, the entire run of the marathon, which was far more than just the RT and AH guys (I didn't explain all of it, but figured you'd see it with the link to their site), had 29,000 participants raising $3,404,486. WOW. That's INSANE

For a break from all the seriousness about the music industry for a different sort of serious.

For the last 25 hours, Rooster Teeth and Achievement Hunter put on a continuous live stream in support of Extra-Life. Extra-Life is a marathon of gaming that donates the proceeds to the Children's Miracle Network. On top of that, RT put up a poster for sale of the AH gang for $10, with the proceeds going to Extra-Life, and Matt Hullum, one of the top brass, put up matching funds for a fifteen minute period, which was a direct donation of just shy of $22K. Donations are still coming in, but the site currently says they've raised ~$185K, and Jack said the poster sales were in the 15,000 range (I'd have to go check the video), making for at least another $150K raised through the sale of the $10 posters.

First off...wow...Any time I see events like this, I tend to get a little bleary eyed and feeling all the feels. For those not in the know, I am a cancer survivor, ALL (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia), diagnosed about a month after my 8th birthday.

So, yeah, it's a little personal.

Surviving cancer does not define my existence. Neither do the kidney stones I got repeatedly during that time, nor the fact that I obviously have a less than stellar immune system since I get horribly sick several times a year (as has happened this past week). However, it obviously plays a role in my day to day life, whether I'd like it to or not.

And one bit that's a part of my daily life is video games.

I was diagnosed by my family doctor when I didn't feel like staying home while my mom took my brother to the doctor. He noticed I looked "a little pale" and had lost weight. So, he ran a quick blood test. All I remember from that first conversation was him telling my mom "I've already called Riley in Indy. Go home, pack your bags...he'll be there for probably at least a month. Leave SOON, today if you can...I know it can take a while to get things in order, but, do it quickly." I think we left a day or two later.

Somehow, in those two days, I went from feeling a bit tired and incredibly hungry (I remember eating 5 meals a day that summer. Not snacks, but full on MEALS) to being beyond weak. By the time we got to the hospital, I couldn't walk. I still had no idea what was happening, just that I was sick...my Mom more or less dragged me into the ER.

Life is a blur after that. I remember having lots of blood taken, and wondering how much blood my body had. I have a cyst on my hand from my first IV. There's a small scar above my heart from the catheter, though at this point it's barely noticeable. I was in and out of fever, and had a central line implanted. My mom told me stories about things that happened, ice baths and the like, but I don't remember any of it.

What I DO remember, was the NES.

My roommate was nicknamed Trojan. There was an NES game called Trojan, which was where I thought he got the name. Turns out, it was a bit more complicated--something about his urinary system not being properly formed, born with some of it on the outside...and he was in the hospital for his last set of operations to fix everything. The nurses joked that, not only did he play that game a lot, but he'd be able to use a Trojan after this was over.

It was that NES the brought us together, made us forget for the hour we had it where we were and why were there. Trojan taught me to play. Two kids, playing video games and laughing. Trojan was the game I remembered the most from the early times. Later, when I wasn't staying in the hospital but coming three times a week, with a long stay on Friday, I remember playing Gemfire. I loved Gemfire so much that my mom went and found it for Genesis. Yay for cross platform games! I still have it as a ROM, and pull it out when I want to play a quick strategy type game. It's more straightforward than Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and not as huge as Heroes of Might and Magic, but it's that style of game.

At home, I played games almost constantly. My dad and I played a lot of NHLPA '93 and later '94. This was pre-season mode, so my dad made an 80 game schedule for my team (in '93, I was all about Detroit. But after the expansion, I switched to Tampa Bay. but the team in NHLPA '93 was so bad, I couldn't deal with it). We kept track of all of the stats--and that's when I got hooked on stat-tracking sports, which led to Strat-O-Matic baseball being a big game in my life, and short-lived fantasy seasons, where I normally placed really highly...but I got too busy for the rotating daily line-ups of baseball, and fantasy football never interested me as much.

I was an RPG nut--I had played and beat Phantasy Star II-IV on Genesis (II was insanely hard and long! IV was almost too easy. III was the nice medium), Shining in the Darkness (never beat it), Landstalker, Beyond Oasis, Shadowrun (repeatedly!), Sword of Vermilion (so unique!), Exile, Warriors of the Eternal Sun, Traysia, and Light Crusader. Side scrollers like the Sonic games, Rocket Knight Adventures, Shadow of the Beast (Talk about a bad port, so hard!) and many more were "light" games, and always the NHL franchise...and a little Tony La Russa Baseball with it's season mode!

Playstation brought my FFVII, VIII, and IX; Parasite Eve; Xenogears (my vote for best RPG, yes, ove FFVII); and hosts more (Lunar, Arc the Lad, on and on). Later we had Dreamcasts which brought Skies of Arcadia, Shenmue, PS Online, Time Stalkers (another unique and difficult title!).

Later came a PS2 (well after it's release), an XBox 360 (less than 2 years ago), and, now...mostly retro gaming on a beat up laptop.

Why the litany? To show a point. For me, video games were about immersion, a life wildly different than my own. To this day, I'm not a huge fan of FPS games that take place in a realistic world. Give me Elder Scrolls games any day. Sports games let me do what, at that time, I couldn't really--I had played hockey till I got sick, and there was no way I was getting on the ice when I was anemic. That took a few more years of recovery. The same with baseball--while I could play, it took a few years before I could REALLY play. There were plenty of times I had to sit the bench and only bat...and sometimes even have someone run for me. It was obvious my tee-shirt had a pouch on the inside to hold my catheter. And when I tripped on a bag once, my mom came sprinting on the field, less because she was scared for me, but because she knew everyone else would be freaking out. She picked me up, dusted me off, and promptly told me to "stop being so clumsy! You'll make everyone worry!" And we laughed...of course I'm sure she was as worried as everyone else, but she never showed it (Yes, my mom is one of those saints).

To this day, video games are my way out of this reality...they help me forget how hungry I am when I'm running low on food and money (the grad student/adjunct life is NOT a glamorous one...and I can't even look at Ramen without getting queasy anymore). And it all dates back to those moments, when I was sitting at home, often mostly alone with my dad in the next room (who, at the same time I had cancer, developed histoplasmosis, and a host of other issues caused by an autoimmune disorder that went undiagnosed for years, even after getting rare disease after rare disease). My mom had to work, since my dad's disability pay was a lot less than his active pay. I wasn't alone, in the sense that, in case of an emergency, someone was around...But I also knew how to dial 911, just in case...

Video games became my morphine. Later in life, when I got "too busy" for gaming, I switched to cigarettes and drinking: neither are as healthy as video games. I've since quit smoking, and nearly quit drinking. I've reached the point where most hard liquor just doesn't sit well in my stomach, and I'm picky about beer...plus, it's all really expensive in Sweden. So, I had to go back and find another way to relax, let me brain work out its issues on its own without the interference from my conscious thought.

Video games.

Yes, I am a musician, and music is fun. But music is also horribly personal. When I'm performing, writing, or listening to music, my soul is bear. When I'm feeling vulnerable, music isn't where I go, unless I want to stare at my wounds. The same goes for a lot of my writing (which is why the libretto is moving slowly these days). Books are good retreats, but I've become so out of touch with reading for fun thanks to years of school and research, that it's sometimes hard to just sit down and enjoy a nice fantasy romp. Hell, sometimes I'm not even sure WHAT there is--it's why I bought old books I loved, and read a huge amount of David Eddings this summer, and then tackled some Tad Williams.

And, again, it's fantasy and sci-fi that draw me in, the worlds unlike what I'm dealing with. But video games have an ability to be so immersive, to bring the player into the world. In Mass Effect, the player becomes Shepherd. The same in the Elder Scrolls games. In Civilization, you're some omnipotent being directly influencing all the strategy, building a world to your choosing. And in the well written games, you want to save the Princess, your father, the kingdom, the world, or yourself. You become the action.

For many, music is this same experience--it can transport you to another world, usually a very personal world. Where video games allow you to leave, music acts as a mirror, forcing you to see yourself in a personal journey. In video games, there's still a sense of separation: while I AM Shepherd, I am NOT Shepherd--our stories are the same only in this brief time. Music, with it's reflection of the self, is always your story, somehow told by someone else, who is leading you down a path of self-discovery...

Yes, that is a Romantic view of music, but it's also fairly true as far as cognitive research has shown. And it's where I get into so many seemingly semantic arguments. Music doesn't tell "a" story, it tells "your" story. Even the most specific instrumental music, mimicking real life sounds, and trying to create a direct metaphor, get switched in our own consciousness. For all the open-ended games out there, there's often a "final boss" or an "overarching plot." There are small stories and big stories, but there are stories you are directly interactive with--you know what the characters say, the words have specific meanings based on context and societal decisions, and the direction you take is laid out from a series of possibilities, carefully determined by a writer. Music is more a sand-box, where you're dumped into a general biome, with a few tools, and more possibilities than their are mobs. You can tell the passage of time (sun rise, rhythms, meters, durations), tell specific elements (trees, chord progressions, a creeper, a repeated and developed motive), and take the journey (even if you take it in a formalist style, as I often do).

In closing THANK YOU JACK PATILLO, THE WHOLE ROOSTER TEETH AND ACHIEVEMENT HUNTER GANG, AND THE ENTIRE RT COMMUNITY! I know I'm far from the only kid that had video games enter their lives at these key moments and become our coping mechanism. To see gamers come together and use that power to give back to the community. Hospitals always need the money, especially to help lower costs and help kids whose family may not have the means to deal with treatments.

And a final note to all the musicians. This blog has talked a lot about the music business recently. One reason is because the talk leaves a horrid taste in my mouth, and I think we, as a community, need to focus on the mission of our art first. So, here's a quote from Pauline Oliveros:

If you are a composer, give priority to community building over career building. Find was to collaborate, serve the field, and make it good for your colleagues as well as yourself. Question your relationship to the form of music you are writing. Are you listening to your inner voice and answering it's call? Are you expressing what you need to express or what you have been taught to express by the canon of men's musical establishment? Of what value is the technique and form you have learned to the expression of what you feel and hear as your own voice in music? How would you like for your music to function in your community? In the world?

Take a tip from RT, AH, and the entire gaming community--they did something amazing, and changed lives. Let's do the same.