15 December 2008


One of the most significant validations of my disinclination towards taking composition lessons came when I overheard two graduate comp students sounding more like a couple of undergraduate performance majors. "When's you're next lesson?" one asked the other. "Tomorrow," he replied, in obvious anguish, "and I haven't written anything this week."

The successful imposition of a steady rate of production on the creative process is sometimes cited as an important exercise in compositional potency, akin to weight lifting in athletics, or long tones in brass playing. Assuming they can cut it, this prepares the student for a career as a Professional Composer, which entails accepting commissions with strict deadlines and turning out pieces to meet them the way bakers turn out loaves of bread every morning.

I once read, though I've forgotten where, that Webern's concept of condensation taken together with his relatively small output led some of his more devout followers to demonize high rates of compositional productivity in general. This, I think, would be just as much of a mistake as to expect everyone to be able to compose right on schedule.

It is becoming more apparent to me that I am not getting any better at meeting deadlines, and that my best work is done when it is undertaken just because, not only without a specific deadline, but also without any real idea of if or when it might be performed. I'm hardly the first person to feel this way, and yet the idea that Professional Composers must learn to deliver the goods on time in order to earn their stripes persists. Hence, though it's hard to say I'm happy not to have commissions piling up, I do see a silver lining in that I'm free to do what I want and write on my own schedule. I also am not any more inclined to see a composition teacher than I was before, since that would only earn me the worst of both worlds (all the deadlines, none of the performances).

See Satie's The Musician's Day for a piece of writing that captures the absurdity of scheduling time to be creative.

10 December 2008

Contradictions To Be Done Away With

(1) Louis Armstrong took his unconventional trumpet and vocal technique and figured out how to make great music with it, but Miles Davis just didn't know how to play the trumpet.

(2) Music that needs to be explained is too intellectual, but musicians that don't talk to their audience are arrogant.

(3) Jazz originated in the West, but it doesn't belong in a book or a course entitled "A History of Western Music."

(4) White jazz musicians who apply classical concepts to their jazz work are dishonoring jazz's African-American origins, but white jazz musicians who overtly imitate seminal African-American artists are just stealing from them for their own material gain, and/or because they have nothing original to say.

(5) No one wants to be labeled "avant-garde" by others (especially in person), but everyone labels themselves "avant-garde" given the chance (especially on their MySpace pages).

08 December 2008


The danger early on for me was being typecast as a percussion composer. I wrote a couple of little percussion pieces when I was still a student that began to get played a lot and are still played a lot, but I then realized that everyone was thinking of me as "Oh, he writes great percussion music." And so I purposely have said no for many, many years to any percussion ensemble request because I just don't want to be thought of as just that.

-Composer Christopher Rouse on Typecasting

I read those words several months ago and gave a cursory thought to those composers (including, I suspect, many "tuba composers") who have, in fact, not merely fallen into but actively cultivated such a typecast reputation as a way of ensuring performances and exposure from sources (like tuba players) eager to have anything they can get their hands on in the way of new music (note lower case). As a composer who could use some performances and exposure myself, I also had to snicker at the idea of turning down a commission of any kind, although I suppose it's more understandable from someone like Rouse who has had a great amount of success.

What only recently occurred to me, and hence reminded me of ths article, is that in my determination to prove the viability of the tuba in jazz, I have willingly contributed to my own typecasting as a jazz specialist. While this has no doubt yielded a smattering of success in this particular area, I've recently realized that the reason I have no opportunities whatsoever to perform classical music is that I haven't been trying real hard to find them. Viewing things in contrast to my jazz experience, where I've always been the outsider, it once seemed safe to assume that since my instrument was already a "standard" part of the orchestra, making things happen on the classical side would be easier. What I've since realized is that working without institutional support poses many of the same challenges to a classical musicians as a jazz musician, and that the time has come to apply the jazz model to my classical endeavors.

Since I first began playing professional (read: paying) gigs as a teen, a good 95% of those gigs have been non-classical. These have been mostly "money gigs," usually involving doing something not so near and dear to my heart, like being part of an ad hoc dixie-pep band for a football-themed US Bank regional conference. It's not easy to find a gig of any kind (let alone a paying one) playing my own music, yet "jazz" of almost any kind seems to be tolerated by quite a few bars and restaurants as peripherally related to the rock and pop that they normally host. This imputed similarity seems to me to be impossible without the counterweight of classical music dragging the stylistic center of gravity so far to the other side: what I do and what these venues normally host could not possibly be considered similar at all without there being something so dissimilar from both of them, something so demonized both aesthetically and socially in these circles, lurking out there beyond the pale. If you show up with a drum set, that's usually enough; show up with a stack of charts and music stands and refuse to go through the PA, and you start to draw negative attention to yourself.

For the last several years, my emphasis on playing jazz has led me to table any serious searching for alternative venues for concert music (an issue of great importance to me, if not only in theory) simply because this imputed similarity ensures that I at least have the option of performing at the established venues, if only infrequently, and this, being the path of least resistance, is the one I've taken. I do, however, take offense to the afore mentioned dynamic that makes this possible; I also have higher aspirations than to play in bars for the rest of my life, no matter what kind of music it is. Seeing that such venues likely wouldn't tolerate a "classical" presentation (though I look forward to duping them into it at some point just to see what happens), a renewed dedication to performing "classical" music necessitates a renewed search for appropriate places to present it, and (equally difficult) people to perform it with.

Though things are far from peachy in the Minneapolis jazz scene, there is at least a small network of accomplished players devoted to writing and performing their own music, as well as resurrecting works of the occasional forgotten genius, and making a good faith effort to find or make opportunities to present this work publicly. I can't say the same about classical music: the mention of getting a chamber group together to operate along these lines has been met more than once with, "When you have a [paying] gig lined up, let me know." The brass quintet in particular seems to be viewed by many as simply a cash cow project for the church and wedding circuits (for the record, if I ever get married, I want the Milo Fine Free Jazz Ensemble to play). The possibility that 5 brass players might "start a band" as an outlet for their own creativity rather than a business venture seems to be a remote one in these parts.

As an alternative to Greg Sandow's extolling of pop culture and Drew McManus' extolling of tuba players (flattered as we are, he obviously hasn't seen our dark side) as providing models for reforming the attitudes and presentation of classical music, I would humbly suggest that classical musicians look to the jazz world for a better model of vitality and viability. It's true, the saying goes that the best way to make a million dollars playing jazz is to start with 2 million; I'm not talking about money here. Money can do you-know-what with itself. I'm still waiting to meet classical players who put the realization of their artistic vision ahead of getting paid for playing their instrument any way they can. Certainly, there are plenty of non-classical players who fall into this trap as well, but there also seem to be enough high-minded ones to make up the difference.

To overcome this, I've decided that maybe I have to undo some of the typecasting that I've worked so hard to establish. Obviously, the idea, via Rouse, of refusing to play jazz anymore doesn't appeal to me at all (if Rouse really loved writing for percussion, he wouldn't/couldn't have refused commissions to do it). Instead, I've resolved to attempt to import just a little bit of the selfless devotion to art that is, in my limited experience, on display more often in jazz circles than classical ones. Once I'm typecast as someone who can't be typecast, I'll know I've succeeded.

28 November 2008


When a work of mine is deemed by conservatives to be too far out, and also deemed by radicals as not far enough out, I'll know I've succeeded.

24 November 2008

Good/Bad Vibes

Today, I finally feel up to confronting the fact that this space is by and large a place for the airing of negative feelings rather than positive ones. I'm well aware that most of what I write takes issue with some other position, often aggressively, and rarely if ever issues compliments to other musicians and bloggers. This is because I've found that the best way to figure out what I really think about something is to try to write persuasively about it; this was what initially pushed me towards writing about music, and it continues to be my primary attraction to this activity. The desire to "go public" with these documents is, admittedly, somewhat self-indulgent, but it enables others to comment on them, which I often find just as useful as the act of writing itself (and an event which I wish I could say happened more often).

If I've carved out a niche as something of a spoilsport/buzzkiller/mudslinger always off pouting in the corner, I would defend this sort of behavior by citing the need for something to offset the torrents of quid pro quo backslapping that dominate most of the rest of the music world. A well-known problem with musicians writing about music is that you can't expect them to bite the hand that feeds them by saying something negative about someone whose support they need, even if that's how they really feel. On that note, I'll put my money where my mouth is and say that the first example that comes to my mind here is the ITEA Journal, in which I'm not sure I've ever read a negative thing about anybody, at least not since I've been a member and paying attention.

Grateful as I am for the occasional exposure I myself have had in their pages, a glowing review from a source that issues nothing but glowing reviews doesn't mean much. Though there's no reason to get unduly vicious purely for its own sake, it sure would be refreshing to see a drubbing or two every so often, as this would at least make it seem like they mean all the nice things they say about each other. The reviews of new materials (i.e. scores in particular) have their own way of dancing around making judgments, namely by focusing on information about the piece (range, difficulty, style, etc.) rather than the reviewer's opinion of it. Useful as this is in some cases, I again have to wonder if the social dynamics at work aren't to blame for inhibiting "real" criticism, which would not only be more useful to the readership, but would further the ultimate goal of getting people to take the tuba and euphonium seriously by proving that the people who play it do, too.

Incongruously, then, I'll close with a compliment. Daniel Wolf, whose blog is among my favorites, put it well in a post from last year on a topic on which he has been an articulate and accurate observer:

...on the topic of boycotting competitions (in particular, those with high entry fees and low prizes), I have received 22 emails in support of my position and none against, and as gratifying as the echo was, it was a bit disturbing that not one of the 22 was willing to go public. While I might understand it if the emailer doesn't want to be associated in public with me...I dislike the idea that he or she doesn't want to upset the competition applecart by speaking out, and profoundly dislike the idea that she or he has chosen anonymity in order to preserve their own competition chances.

Well said.

19 November 2008

A Tuba in the Jazz Band?

One of my tuba students recently came to me for advice on how to convince his high school band director to let him play in the jazz band. Among other things, I offered to write a letter for him, which I've now turned into an "open letter" to all K-12 band directors who favor strict adherence to the "standard" big band instrumentation of saxophones, trumpets, trombones, and rhythm. My naively optimistic hope is that this document could be used by any student who wants to play a "non-standard" instrument in their school's jazz band, but whose band teacher won't allow it. I've posted the letter on my website as a PDF file:

A Tuba in the Jazz Band?

I'll refrain from rehashing the whole letter point by point in hopes that you, the reader, will click on the link and read it in its entirety. There are, however, a couple of additional thoughts I've had since I finished it.

First, I mention in the letter that this situation never arises at schools with small/weak music programs. That's because in those cases, there aren't enough (or good enough) students available to cover the parts in the first place, and hence, regardless of their feelings about jazz band instrumentation, the teacher is typically in no position to turn down interested students on any instrument. I suspect this accounts for the fact that the majority of my K-12 tuba students were already playing in jazz band when they came to me for lessons (a point which I was sure to emphasize in the letter). This makes it all the more frustrating that one who attends a school with a larger program would be the one to find himself potentially trespassed from jazz band because of his instrument, yet if you think about it, it makes perfect sense, since there apparently are more trumpet, trombone and saxophone players at his school than there are spots available, making the admission of other instrumentalists quite the slippery slope for his band teacher.

In hindsight, I realize now that as someone who came up through bare bones jazz programs rather than sprawling, competitive ones, I benefitted greatly from this very dynamic, even if it didn't seem like it much of the time. My high school band teacher, who was overworked generally (aren't they all?) and particularly inexperienced in the jazz realm, went looking for help and stumbled on Jim Torok and Kerry Ashmore, two traditional jazz musicians who had been working with school jazz bands on a volunteer basis for many years. She turned the reins over to them, and suddenly not only were we afforded the opportunity to work with two highly experienced professional musicians, but two highly experienced professional musicians who, I was soon to learn, often hire their best students. They ultimately gave me my first paying gigs while I was still in high school, not to mention instilling a love and understanding of early jazz that I may not have otherwise developed. To this day, I still play with both of them several times a year.

I lucked out again in college at the University of Minnesota, where Jazz Studies Director Dean Sorenson spearheaded a collaboration with the dance department that entailed commissioning many new works from local composers. When he offered to include tuba in the instrumentation, I jumped at the opportunity to be a full-time member of a big band for the first time, as well as write a piece of my own for the project. While at The U, I was also lucky enough to have drummer Phil Hey as a jazz combo instructor. Phil, who is ubiquitous on the local scene and is the first call drummer for many big names passing through from out of town, has been a valuable teacher, mentor, and friend over the years, but, oddly enough, one of a type which I may not have had if I had gone to a big name jazz school where TA's run all of the combos, as was the case at the University of Northern Colorado, where I spent a year as an exchange student. This is not to diminish the generosity of Dana Landry, the Director of Jazz Studies at UNC, who graciously agreed to do 1-on-1 lessons with me during my second semester, and also had me play a couple of tunes with the Lab Band I. (Did you get that last part, high school band directors?) Nonetheless, since all of the combos and most of the big bands were directed by TA's, this was my only direct contact with jazz faculty members while I was there.

Certainly, there were ups and downs to all of my academic jazz experiences, and I definitely did not feel lucky to be part of small programs at the time. Nonetheless, it has been difficult watching a student of my own be offered less (nothing, actually) by a program that has more to give, and it has also made me more grateful for what I did get to be a part of as a student.

Secondly, I mention in the letter that, in hindsight, the academic world in general seemed less receptive to me as a tuba player playing jazz than the "real world" of living, breathing musicians has been since I left school. I'll refrain from naming names here, although it should be obvious that the one's I've mentioned in a positive light above certainly aren't who I'm talking about. With this idea still fresh in my mind from writing the letter, I just happened to stumble on a recent New York Times article about the guitarist Mary Halvorson, from which this excerpt particularly jumped out at me:

In high school she enrolled in summer programs at the Berklee College of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music, learning to shrug off chauvinistic appraisals of her talent.“Nobody would take me seriously,” she said. “They would take one look at me and say, ‘O.K., folk singer.’ That was really hard for me, and I was angry a lot of the time. I did all these summer programs, and I never encountered another female playing jazz guitar. Ever.” The experience taught her to be comfortable as the only woman on a bandstand, she said, adding that the issue rarely comes up anymore.

Let me preface my reaction to that very last passage by saying that I have no illusions that anything I've experienced as a tuba player in a saxophone player's world compares to the pervasiveness or hurtfulness of sexism or racism. Nonetheless, both of our stories point toward an indictment of musical academia as unduly resistant to diversity, the road less travelled, "the world as it might be" as opposed to "the world as it is," or whatever else you want to call it. Maybe we knew that already, but if nothing else, this is more fuel for the fire.


I'll close this post the way I began my "open letter," which is to say that the very notion of "standard" and "non-standard" instruments is more representative of where the music publishing industry has thrown in their lot than it is of the whole of jazz history and the attitudes of its practitioners. It's never been about what you play, but how you play. Though I am a tuba player, this is about much more than just the tuba. It's too bad that so many schools have hitched their wagons to a jazz band instrumentation that automatically excludes more than half of the wind band, virtually all of the string orchestra, and everyone in the choir. In the face of this, creative band directors have always found the flexibility necessary to involve all of their interested students in jazz, regardless of the instruments they play. As much as we appreciate these extra efforts, they really ought to be par for the course, and we ought not accept anything less.

31 October 2008

Trick or Treat? Blog Month Post-Mortem

Today is Halloween, which has always been my favorite holiday, but this year, while most of the rest of the country is busy donning their best costumes, I am shedding mine, for this is the last day of October, the month where I attempt to be something I'm not, namely, a profligate blogger who posts regularly and always leaves his readers wanting...less.

The blog month project took a direct hit within its first week, went down in flames midway through the third, and staged an unexpected but welcome rally in the fourth. Too little, too late. Though I failed miserably to accomplish to goal I had set for myself (to post every day during the month, or at the very least, to average a post a day), it was worth attempting simply to confirm my long-held suspicion that I simply don't have the time or inclination to post on a daily basis. Nonetheless, I do enjoy occasionally dumping my misguided musico-philosophical views on the few unsuspecting readers who happen to stumble their way over here from time to time, and assuming that no self-respecting peer-reviewed publication would touch me with a ten foot double reed, I have no intention of giving it up any time soon, even if for long stretches it appears that I have.

Consider yourselves warned that beginning with our next installment, this blog is liable to start looking an awful lot like it did before (i.e. two posts a month totaling several thousand words). While I intend to make Blog Month an annual event here at My Fickle Ears Dig It, it would be quite a shock indeed if it were ever to succeed in its stated purpose (for the record, I averaged about 0.645 posts per day; we'll try to improve on that next year). With any luck, quality has not suffered too terribly in the company of increased quantity over the last few weeks, and if there is in fact anyone out there who reads this blog regularly enough in order for the frequency and length of the posts to have become monotonous, at least that routine has been broken for the time being. For new readers, feel free to enjoy the entire month at your own pace; I'll be leaving it up on the main page for a while simply so I can wallow the fleeting quasi-profligacy that was my October 2008. Don't rush yourselves; it may have to last you a while.

Hat tip to Daniel Wolf for adding the word profligate, as well as its variants, to my vocabulary. I can't stop using it, probably because I'll never be one.

29 October 2008

Pinocchio Changes

It has been my opinion for some time that of all the boneheaded errors contained in the original (read: illegal) Real Books, Wayne Shorter seems to suffer more than any other single composer represented. The changes for Speak No Evil, for example, which is an eminent jazz classic and gets called at jam sessions with some regularity, are not even close. The same goes for "Pinocchio," a rarely-heard yet no less brilliant Shorter composition that has undoubtedly suffered from the somewhat mysterious and even haphazard treatments it first received on the Miles Davis Quintet's album "Nefertiti."

Several months ago, I encountered an excellent recording of "Pinocchio" by the Ernie Watts Quartet, which inspired me to attempt to learn the tune myself. As all lead sheets I had hitherto seen had obvious and egregious mistakes in them, I decided to start from scratch with the original recordings. While I can't be certain that I've necessarily figured out what Shorter actually wrote, the chart I've posted below has what I feel are eminently usable changes for this tune, or at least vast improvements on the Real Book changes.

If mine is not entirely accurate as far as what the original lead sheets used by Miles et al actually said on them, I'm reasonably certain that the chordscales (yes, it's officially one word now) represent the correct collections of pitches, and that the "real" changes would simply be other modes of these same scales. I've also constructed "simplified" solo changes which omit some of the faster moving passing harmonies and use more familiar chord symbols than the ones I got attached to initially. To my ears, this is the approach that Watts et al take in their burning rendition, although I can't be sure without asking them.

It should also be noted that pianist Steve Khan has put together a great discussion of this tune and Herbie Hancock's solo over it from the original up tempo version on "Nefertiti." He even offers up a handwritten transcription of the solo (take that notation software mavens). Though I resisted looking at his chart until I'd done a good deal of playing along and listening myself, there are very few disagreements to be mentioned.

As for the alternate take, which affords us the opportunity to hear things at a bit slower tempo, I think it's interesting that in the first chorus, Ron Carter remains on an F# throughout both the 13th and 14th measures, whereas most of the rest of the time, the chord in the 14th bar seems to be built on root E. It's not unusual for pianists and horn players to worry more about diatonic collections than which mode of them they are actually implying, but the bass player is usually very concerned with this. Nonetheless, this is a wonderful variation on what appear to be the "correct" changes; Dmaj7/F# implies Phrygian, a sound that was becoming more common in jazz around the time these recordings were made, and to this day is still quite evocative of this particular time in jazz history.

In playing along with the tune myself, I eventually fell into the habit of playing a descending bass line (only one pitch per bar) in this part of the form: F# in bar 13 (the root), E in bar 14 (also the root), D# in bar 15 (the major 3rd of what I came to hear as B7alt.; others say F13(#11); both are modes of C melodic minor), C# in bar 16 (the 5th of F#7), and B in bars 17 and 18 (back to the root). It works nicely, especially considering that it is actually rather awkward for the bass player to imply forward momentum in this part of the form over virtually any of the possible combinations of changes, for in all such possible variations, there is at least one awkward moment in the root movement, with F# and B predominating while the qualities of the chords they support are changing more drastically. One would be tempted to turn to an F# pedal in bars 13-16, but unfortunately, this clashes terribly with the C melodic minor harmony in bar 15.

As is generally the case with this tune, this passage represents a challenge for the imagination, but one which yields great rewards when well met. With any luck, we'll be hearing it played (and playing it ourselves) more often in the years to come.

27 October 2008

More Squiggles

As yet another follow-up to the post on composing with notation programs, here are three more pages from my oeuvre that required some extracurricular fiddling with Sibelius. All three are from my "Reflections on a Theme of Eric Dolphy" for two pianos (extra credit to anyone who can identify the source of the theme from these excerpts).

I'm well aware that, all in all, the examples I've given are not exactly overwhelming proof of extensive subversion of the "normal" operation of the software, nor even unqualified successes in attempting something less. There seem to be two major categories of tasks that I turn to quite a bit: free meter (Sibelius calls this "irrgeular bars") and feathered beams. Since I use them both a lot, and since, really, they're not all that difficult to obtain in Sibelius, neither seems to set me back much in the course of working on a piece, even if I am in fact composing the music as I enter it into the computer.

The most annoying thing about inserting a bar of a irregular length is that you have to know exactly how long it needs to be beforehand, then insert a bar of this length, and then enter the notes. Hence, it is usually not possible to compose directly into such a bar as you will inevitably revise the lick a few times before settling on something, hence changing the length; instead, I often compose what I want, then count the durations of the notes, then create the irregular bar, then copy and paste the lick into the irregular bar. It sounds very awkward trying to explain it verbally, but after several years and dozens of pieces, it's like riding a bike.

While irregular bars obviously cannot be longer than the width of the page and margins will allow, there is an easy way to make any barline invisible; hence, by hiding the barline at the end of the system, you can give the impression of two adjacent systems comprising a single, very long irregular bar. This is what I did in "You've Been Promoted To Kriho," a piece from my first set of examples two posts ago (of course, you have to do the same calculations of the lengths of the bars, deciding ahead of time where you want to break the system; again, sounds complicated, but it's really not, and as you can see from the fact that I can't shut up about it, I actually find this kind of thing fun to do and to talk about).

Quite possibly the greatest feature of Concertware (one that Finale and Sibelius would both do well to make available as an option if they haven't already) was to enter what it called "Free Time" as the time signature, at which point you could write to your hearts content without any bar lines whatsoever. Concertware used a cursor the way a word processor does; in combination with the "Free Time" feature, this offered a glimmer of the sort of uninhibited functionality that some notation software detractors would no doubt like to see. (And come on, who didn't love "Free Time" in elementary school? The mere phrase itself lent this feature a certain attractiveness in its ability to spark childlike curiosity in the user.)

I find it very interesting that notation software finds itself under attack simultaneously as both too easy and too difficult, too forward looking and not forward looking enough. There are those who want to move forward with the full gamut of 20th century notational innovations in tow, and for whom current software is simply inadequate for this task; and then there are those for whom the compositional process itself is inextricably bound up with pencil and paper, without which the act has become something with which they are not familiar. Nonetheless, I suspect that it will not be until we have had the opportunity to observe a couple of generations who have never known any other way that we will be able to say for sure what the effects have been, and with necessity (last I checked) still being the mother of invention, I have a strong suspicion that these generations will turn whatever tools it is they have available to their distinct advantage, the habits and predilections of their forebears be damned.

Composers, Tubists, and the Online Forum

As a follow-up to the last post, it's worth mentioning that there are two interesting threads going on TubeNet right now about composers and composition:

Composers- Unintended Consequences

Band Revisions- Marches

Though the instrument itself has been subject to lots of negative stereotyping, tuba players themselves have actually gotten more than their fair share of respect over the years for being relatively easy going and jovial (this in contrast to their brass brethren, the alcoholic trombonist and jock trumpet player). Drew McManus once even went as far as to suggest that us tuba players are going to save classical music ourselves (of course, in order to believe this, you have to subscribe to the school of thought that says classical music needs saving, which I generally don't...but we're flattered anyway).

It's tempting to see TubeNet as an extension of this situation, an unusually informative and civil instantiation of the much-maligned Online Forum. There was, in fact, a thread a while back about the format, in the course of which it was argued that there was a vicious cycle in place whereby professionals have no use for online fora that deal with their expertise, and therefore don't visit them, which means that the people who do must be hacks who don't know anything, whereby professionals have no use for fora that deal with their expertise...and so on and so forth.

In a bout of unexpected idealism, I chimed in to disagree, arguing that the very forum in which this discussion was taking place disproved the assertion that this dynamic was inevitable. In fact, if I'm not mistaken, that very thread (among other things) led to the advent of a labeling system that explicitly identified certain contributors as professionals (though I could probably qualify by the skin of my teeth, the term has so many negative connotations for me that I can't bring myself to do it, and hence, my meager contributions bear no such distinction).

It was surprising to me, then, when later that day I received an e-mail to my personal account from a prominent professional (who shall remain unnamed) taking issue with my defense of the format. The message began by stating that he had not actually been following the discussion, but that a friend had alerted him to what had been written; even so, the irony in receiving a rather immediate and pointed rebuke to an online forum posting from someone arguing that people like him don't read such things because they find them useless elicited a healthy "lol" from yours truly that made it easier to stomach the criticisms that followed.

In any case, though in my younger days I certainly have been witness to and even culprit in a few forum meltdowns, TubeNet seems to have a way of staying above this sort of thing, especially now that it is heavily moderated. But more importantly, even as I age, I still learn things (things that turn out to be true, in fact) from reading it. Let's hope it stays that way.

26 October 2008

Composing With Notation Software

There was an interesting and lively discussion on Sequenza 21 recently around the topic of composing with notation software. I would be remiss if I did not cover this topic on this blog at some point (actually, I'm somewhat shocked that I haven't yet in 2-plus years of blogging), for not only have I composed mostly with notation software for my entire musical life, but such software is largely responsible for my getting involved in writing music at all. Since the S21 discussion seemed to me to be dominated mostly by people who were already experienced composers before notation programs were widely available, I thought it might be worth hearing the perspective of someone who has never known any other way.

My Story
When I was in 7th grade (ca. 1994), my dad bought an early notation program called Concertware* for our then-state-of-the-art (it ran System 7) Macintosh Power PC. The program was buggy but highly intuitive and very effective. I had just started playing euphonium in the school band the year before, and my interest in music was burgeoning. Regrettably (but predictably), so was my interest in video games. At first, playing around with Concertware was pretty much just another game alongside NBA Jam and Mortal Kombat III (if that doesn't date me, I don't know what could), but years after my Super Nintendo had started collecting dust, I was still writing music with Concertware.

By the time I reached high school, I had expanded my default template to 8 parts, roughly approximating the school wind bands I had been playing in, with many parts doubled among instruments of similar tessitura. By the end of high school, I had composed over 100 pieces of highly variable but steadily improving quality for this instrumentation, including a 15-minute long, five movement "Symphony No. 1." Eventually, I ventured into chamber music and jazz as well, and during my senior year, I received my first "official" recognition as a composer by winning a composition contest put on by a local new music ensemble. That the piece sounded better played by them than by the computer served to bolster my confidence in the rather odd way that my compositional approach had developed.

While I still miss certain features of Concertware, its limitations became more obvious as I entered college as a music major. After experimenting with both Finale and Sibelius in the computer labs, I purchased my own copy of Sibelius 1 and never looked back. I upgraded to Sibelius 2 when it came out, but have not kept up with subsequent revisions. My college years saw the creation of many new pieces for all sorts of instrumentations. While I began to sketch at the piano more frequently, all of that work went straight into Sibelius the first chance I got, and would often serve merely as a jumping off point for composing directly into the computer, with much of the material becoming unrecognizable in the process. Perhaps my most productive and effective period as a composer came when I decided to move the home computer as close to the piano as I could get it. Despite destroying the legs on the piano bench and at least one chair by constantly shuttling back and forth from piano to desktop, this allowed me to use each tool for the tasks I found it most effective in accomplishing, and in hindsight, it seems to me that this made a difference in the quality of my work.

Composing With Notation Software: Pro vs. Con
First and foremost, let's address what I see as a double standard. If I were a concert pianist who composed primarily at the piano, it is unlikely that I would be criticized by a composition teacher for using my piano technique as a crutch; yet that is exactly what many would say about my use of notation programs. In fact, the two serve exactly the same purpose. In all honesty, I would indeed prefer to be able to work at the piano more of the time, and if I had exceptional piano technique, I certainly would take full advantage of it. Unfortunately, I am one of many musicians who merely play "arranger's piano" (even that's being generous in my case), and hence, the process of sitting down at the piano to compose is always quite frustrating. Even when the results are relatively good, I feel that they are severely limited by my poor technique, which is undoubtedly a more significant obstacle than any of the most commonly cited pitfalls of composing directly into a notation program.

Suffice it to say that I use notation program playback to hear ideas in real time that I am not capable of playing on the piano. In particular, that means thickly scored contrapuntal passages in pieces for large ensembles, but includes quite a bit more also. I use the computer exactly the same way a composer uses any other instrument for the same purpose. To date, I have not encountered anyone who discourages students from working their ideas out on an instrument, and if this technique can indeed be endorsed, then a software-as-instrument framework follows easily. Indeed, many experienced users of both Finale and Sibelius report developing a fluency akin to playing an instrument or typing text. My Sibelius skills certainly blow my piano skills away, so needless to say, I use Sibelius more often. Rather than limiting my composing, this opens up areas that would either go unexplored or yield poor results were I forced to rely exclusively on my very limited keyboard technique. And let's face it, you can't compose much with a tuba in your hands, though on rare occasions, I have written solo music this way.

Then, of course, there is the question of orchestration. I have been witness to many instances both on and offline where a commentator has lashed out at the idea of composing directly into a notation program solely on the basis that the playback does not give a realistic impression of balance among the instruments, in part because the synthesized sounds are not realistic, and in part because the program enables the user to artificially balance the parts to get the playback results they want. Perhaps because I was exposed to this viewpoint so early and often, it became something I thought about a lot, and subsequently, something that I was determined not to fall into.

Let me be clear that my primary reason for relying heavily on playback is temporal and not orchestrational. I have spent hundreds if not thousands of hours of my life rehearsing and performing with large wind bands, orchestras, jazz bands, and collective improvising ensembles. It's true, one can most definitely not learn to orchestrate from a notation program, nor can one learn from a composition teacher or the books they've published. As a member of a large ensemble under a skilled conductor preparing the Hindemith Symphony in B-flat or Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra (to name two pieces in particular that taught me more than a phone-book-sized orchestration book ever could), one is not only partially responsible for creating the balance oneself, but also has a front row seat for all of the spot checking of particular subsets of the group in particular passages of music, as well as the conductor's advisements to these players based on his/her prior experience with the piece. I don't think I could overstate the value of this information to me as a composer, and yet, I almost certainly would not have learned it had I majored in Composition, Theory, or Musicology. In fact, when I was in school, many such classes met in the afternoon during ensemble rehearsals, hence preventing almost anyone from being meaningfully involved in both.

Despite being told repeatedly that composing directly into a notation program dooms one to orchestrational failure, I feel very strongly that one who brings a performer's pedigree to their work as a composer is destined to succeed as an orchestrator**, whether they compose at the computer, the piano, or off in the woods somewhere. Furthermore, after working with a notation program for a substantial length of time, as well as hearing some of their music performed, the composer begins to catalog the specific strengths and weakness of the playback in terms of its resemblance to real life players. Armed with this knowledge, the program becomes an even more effective and powerful tool for the composer to exploit.

Consider it granted that a lack of firsthand experience with the instruments one is writing for is a significant handicap, and that a lack of hands-on experience with the notation program one is using to write for those instruments is also a significant handicap. I don't think anyone would dispute those points. Conversely, as someone who started composing directly into a notation program, who has constantly refined this technique over the course of the last 13 years, who has concurrently performed others' music as well as his own with a myriad of large and small ensembles, who has undertaken countless hours of individual instrumental practice, and who has listened to quite a bit of live and recorded music, I have the utmost confidence in my compositional process and its suitability to my aspirations. If this is a crutch, then I'm happily crippled.

Chicken or Egg?
Here's something that was written in the S21 discussion cited above by Dennis Barthory-Kitsz, a self-described "doom and gloom guy" when it comes to notation software influencing composers:

Like any highly limited tools (including musical instruments), notation software eases the creation of music for which it was originally designed, but stands in the way of other music — save under very creative or persistent hands...

...The consequence of conservative tools is conservative composition — so much so that some composers brought up with these tools are only dimly aware of the possibilities outside them.

In fact, one could simply replace "conservative" with "innovative" in the excerpt above and have a statement that was no less valid, yet also misses the point. Speaking from my personal experience only, my composition reflects first and foremost what is in my CD collection; after that, the music I've performed; and a distant third, the very few scores that I have studied in any kind of depth. If there is anything responsible for the fact that none of my pieces to date necessitate a graphic score, it's that hardly a single thing I listen to was notated as a graphic score, that I've only rarely performed from a graphic score, and that I neither own nor have ever checked out from any library a graphic score of any kind, with the possible exception of examples contained in books on people like Anthony Braxton and John Cage. Is this an extreme condition brought on by an early predilection for composing directly into the computer, or am I perhaps entitled to claim that to this point, graphic scores just aren't my thing, even if Braxton and Cage are (sometimes)?

For a composer to be "only dimly aware" of 20th century notational innovations seems to me to have nothing to do with the computer and everything to do with the bookshelf and the CD rack. In my case, I've also learned quite a few notational tricks and extended techniques the same way I learned to orchestrate: by sitting in rehearsal while the conductor worked with another section. Although us big instrument folks in the back row often complained amongst ourselves that our time was being wasted, in hindsight, I can't honestly say that this was the case for me. Other than being the mythical genius that creates them out of thin air, the only way to become aware of new musical possibilities is to encounter them.

The qualification that "very creative or persistent hands" may overcome the shackles of notation software is apt; I would also question what exactly anyone who is not particularly creative or persistent is doing writing music in the first place. As for trudging off into the woods to compose without the aid of anything more than my mind's ear, I've attempted it many times, but it has rarely yielded anything more than a fleeting idea that happens to work as a jumping off point for computer- or piano-based composition. Sad as it is to say, I am not Mozart. Or Beethoven. I do not work entire pieces out in my head and then write them down just as they came to me. I'm more of an improviser who appreciates the opportunity to revise on occasion. Perhaps this is consistent with what critics of computer-based composition are fearful of; conversely, I feel like the explanation can be found in the musical artifacts and experiences I've surrounded myself with.

Here are 3 pages of music which required a little bit of creativity and an awful lot of persistence. As best I can recall, the first two were composed directly into the computer while the third was composed "in the woods" and edited slightly upon entry into Sibelius using the playback as a tool.


*Here is the underwhelming Wikipedia page for Concertware. If anyone knows any more of the story, I'd love to hear it.

**I also feel that my performing experiences led me away from a conception of composition and orchestration as separate pursuits that are negotiable in isolation from each other and towards a vision of orchestration as an inevitable consequence of one's compositional voice, and one that is not negotiable without also altering said voice...but that's quite a tangent, and hence a topic for another post.

19 October 2008

Easy For Me To Say

From an article in The Nation about high-rolling conservationists:

World-renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle was there by Seligmann's side, as was Stone Gossard, rhythm guitarist for Pearl Jam. Gossard and his girlfriend were hoping to explore ways, through support of CI's work, to offset the 5,700-ton carbon footprint Pearl Jam was about to create with an upcoming world tour.

Now, over the years, I've probably moralized a bit out of proportion to my real efforts to balance making music with living green. I've also been known to chide others for the consequences of opportunities that I simply don't have (like world tours), which is easy to do since I'll never have to make those decisions myself. Among the many things music has made me into that I never thought I'd be (teacher, author, entrepreneur, union member, even bookworm for a brief while), car owner would be at the top of the list. I was raised in a family that didn't own a car, using a combination of bikes and public transit instead, and although I complained about it occasionally early on, I came to fully embrace the reasons why my parents made this choice.

Then I took up tuba playing.

I'm someone who believes the solution to the energy crisis is to use less, and to that end, I'd really like to know how the carbon footprint of the average itinerant musician compares to that of a depraved suburbanite commuter, or a bike-riding uptown hippie for that matter. And once again, it's easy for me to say that I just don't drive my car all that much when I don't have all that many gigs to drive to in the first place. I've given some particular thought recently to the question of touring. Among friends of mine who have made touring a priority, the collective purchase of a cargo van for the band seems to be something a rite of passage, a milestone that signifies coming into your own as a group. It's a rare acquaintance of mine that can afford to fly to a gig, but in fact, flying is even worse for the air than driving, or so I've been led to believe.

What I'm dancing around saying is that touring may be good for our careers, if less frequently good for our wallets, but it is never good for the planet, no matter how we attempt to "offset" it. It seems unfair to expect any given musician to swear off of it, but because the people who use more than their fair share are using enough for all the rest of us and then some, the very notion of fairness is difficult to quantify when giving up touring altogether as an individual or even a band is a mere drop in the bucket. Maybe someone with knowledge of such things can chime in as to whether the concept of carbon "offsetting" is a valid proposition; to me, it sounds a lot like "no net loss of wetlands," which is pretty much a worthless propaganda tagline.

Since I couldn't go on tour if I wanted to, I don't have to worry about it, and all of the noise I'm making over it here isn't really worth much. Meanwhile, it's comforting to know that of the top 10 most dangerous intersections for bikes in Minneapolis, there's one on my way to work and one on my way to teach. Hence, while my individual efforts at driving less aren't exactly Herculean, if we're factoring the risk to life and limb into the "offsetting" equation, then each trip though the Minnehaha roundabout ought to be earning me another city on my world tour (that is, if I can manage to get that popular before we run out of petroleum for good).

Solo Night

Last night, I attended the first of this season's six "Engine 408" concerts by members of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. The program consisted entirely of Berio Sequenzas (nos. I, IXa, and XIV) for solo instruments, and Davidovsky Synchronisms (nos. 1, 3, 6, 9, and 12) for solo instruments with electronic sound. This was my first contact with each of these pieces, and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Kudos to the SPCO for creating a space (both literally and figuratively) for new music to be heard performed by world-class players (which increases the chances that people will actually dig it), and for only $10 at that (ditto).

As with each of these that I've attended, the seats were nearly full, which I would estimate represents at least 150 people. While I'm sure that the concert didn't pay for itself through ticket sales (I'm assuming they weren't expecting it to, and if they did, they would charge accordingly), it at least goes to show that prominently featuring a name like Berio does not in and of itself guarantee lackluster attendance. In fact, this was the second performance of the week, which puts the total number of people who did not turn and run screaming in the opposite direction even higher. And while I for one would always like to see more such programming undertaken by the full orchestra, I also believe that forcing it on people who don't want to hear it is the wrong way to go. I have little tolerance for the now-perfunctory pairing of classical warhorses with token contemporary pieces that holds sway in the orchestral world today; it would be nice if there were a subscription series concert every now and then that heavily featured modernist works, but failing that, putting us off in our own little corner with exceptional space, performers, and pricing isn't a bad deal either.

Upon first hearing, my favorite piece of the bunch was without question Davidovsky's Synchronisms No. 6 for Piano and Electronic Sound...which is why I was a bit surprised to learn that it won the Pulitzer Prize...in 1971. Reasonable people seem to have reached a consensus that the Pulitzer doesn't really mean anything, or perhaps even that it merely tells us what to stay away from (this irreverent summary of Pulitzer-winning pieces has made the rounds before, but if you haven't seen it, it's pretty funny; never mind that the writer obviously is not a fan of the Davidovsky). I actually can't claim familiarity with most of the pieces, and I probably could not name another piece composed in 1971 off the top of my head, but I really enjoyed this one, and I fully intend to invest in a recording when time and finances permit.

Sadly, until I stumble on another performance locally (not likely, I think), I won't be able to delight in the various reactions of middlebrow audience members. One gentleman a couple of rows in front of me would turn and look at his family with eyebrows raised and a smirk on his face every time the soloist or the tape tossed off a particularly gnarly riff. But the best by far were the people who forgot about the tape part while it was tacet for a minute or more, then were so startled by its next entrance that they jumped a couple of inches out of their seats. Perhaps we will know for sure that electronic music has become mainstream when this is no longer the norm.

14 October 2008

Walking and Chewing Gum

I did something earlier today that I haven't done for several years. Before leaving for work, I grabbed my Discman, popped in a CD, and donned my headphones. This used to be the normal routine during college when I seemingly spent hours each day walking. I did a lot of productive listening that way, and got to know many recordings and pieces intimately.

Since then, I haven't really had to do much walking, and hence, my listening has been relegated largely to the home. When I got my car (complete with CD player), I made a conscientious effort to replicate what used to be my walking routine, but found that the car (when it is running, at least) is simply too noisy a place to listen to anything interesting. The fact that I purposely try to avoid using if at all possible also meant that it didn't contribute much time to the cause. (I read somewhere a while ago that, statistically, the number one "venue" for listening to classical music is the car, which is tragic, but not the least bit surprising).

My current "day job" affords me the choice of biking, driving or taking public transit, and when I do the latter, I have a 15-20 minute walk to account for. Strangely, I've heretofore been uninspired to use this walk as listening time; somehow, all that walking in college burned me out on the idea (although I still find it impossible not to pace while listening at home). Now that I've tried it, I've encountered some unexpected problems. For one, the streets I take are busy, and hence, loud; as chaotic as a sprawling college campus can be, it appears in hindsight that the noise pollution was bearable, or at least more so than a legion of assorted motor vehicles is. There are also problems left over even from years ago that I never completely solved: how to fill 15-20 minutes without having to break off in the middle of a track, how to store headphones in a backpack such that they don't get destroyed, and so on.

As burned out as I sometimes get on playing and composing (and blogging), I don't ever see the same thing happening to listening, which is quite literally "what it's all about" in music. That there's so little time for it has always been frustrating, and hence, I would very much like to be able to steal a bit of time back from commuting, housework, and the like. As well as this served me for several years, there's no denying that when there's something else going on, it is much easier to hear music than it is to actually listen to it. When I was in high school, I remember a faculty member at a summer music camp pointing out that the kid who was, arguably, the best player out of the whole group was also the only one of us who had headphones permanently draped around his neck. Now that I'm (also arguably) an adult and (more arguably) a professional, I've decided that quality is more important to me than quantity when it comes to listening, though I wish I didn't have to choose.

11 October 2008

And Now a Word From Our Sponsor

Like a Scab

Remember going to the beach as a kid, building a totally awesome sand castle, then irreparably maiming it by nitpicking about the finer details? It was probably good enough, but you had to make the left side of it perfect; then you accidentally took too much off and have fix the right side to make it symmetrical; pretty soon, after playing this game for about half an hour, you finally manage to take out a particularly important component of the support apparatus, and half of it crumbles to the ground, leaving behind a sort of "sand ruins" monstrosity.

When is revision necessary? When is it destructive? Where are our first intuitive impulses inherently correct, the result of inspiration that comes around only so often and cannot be meaningfully recaptured for any subsequent process of revision? Where are they inherently flawed, the result of judgment clouded by the emotional high of said inspiration, which artificially inflated our opinion of what we had just done?

The social networking site Facebook is an excellent example of a quality product being maimed at the hands of its own creators. Embarrassed as I am to admit that I've had a Facebook page since before it was even open to everyone, I'm not ashamed to admit (since I've heard the same thing from virtually everyone I've talked to about it) that I think it was better back then, and that opening it to everyone was the first step in a downward spiral: news feeds, bad layouts, and basically trying to make it just like all of the other social networking sites that already exist. Did they make these decisions in a vacuum? Did they think they had to compete with MySpace? Or did they simply get bored with their sand castle and have to change it again and again until part of it fell over? I can't help but wonder.

In another recent example ripped from the headlines, I went to my local office superstore to pick up an ink cartridge a couple of weeks ago, and found (not surprisingly) that the ink cartridges had been moved. I visit said office superstore relatively infrequently, and the cartridges have not been in the same place on any two visits. Exasperated and tired of going on scavenger hunts in place of shopping trips, I broke down and asked an employee where they were (it turns out they had been moved to the extreme opposite side of the store, away from the printers and the cartridge refill station, which struck me as an odd choice, and not the best way to sell more ink).

I've witnessed this phenomenon in stores of various sizes and specializations for most of my life, starting with the local corner store in the neighborhood I grew up in, and continuing with the supermarkets I shopped at in college. I have always wondered if the constant reorganization of the products isn't the result of a natural human tendency to become bored with things that never change. It simply doesn't make sense that their inventories would be changing over at such a rate to justify all the shuffling, for while I may have trouble finding what I'm looking for, it's most always the same thing I was looking for last time, and in the end, they most always still carry it, but have inexplicably moved it to a different part of the store.

I've never worked in anything quite like a store, but at the jobs I have had, I often sense an impatience with the fixed nature of the given physical space that I and my coworkers inhabit on a far more regular basis than even the most frequent visitors. In such cases, becoming intimately familiar with something is only the penultimate step in becoming bored with it, a result which naturally drives us to desire change for its own sake. This, I think, is decidedly unhealthy in music, if not elsewhere as well. I think it not only betrays an childish impatience, but also a lack of confidence in one's work (of course, an aversion to revision could represent an overconfidence as well). Change, to the extent that it is inevitable and cannot be delayed forever, cannot be hastened either. As a composer, I've always been inclined to view cases where wholesale revision is in order as outright failures, choosing to simply move on rather than dilly dally in trying to make an average sand castle into a great one.

Write It Down So You Don't Forget It

I'm not embarrassed to admit that at one point in my life, I was one of those people for whom there were two kinds of music: classical and jazz. Everything I was involved in could be placed in one of those two categories, and mingling them or going outside of them didn't seem particularly important or interesting. Today, while I've broadened my horizons a little bit, as well as found productive ways of blurring the line between the two areas, I still have a tendency to see my musical world as a dichotomy, albeit a slightly different one. Rather than classical-versus-jazz, it has become notated-versus-improvised.

I think this has much to do with the music scene in Minneapolis, or at least the ostensibly non-classical part of it that I've inhabited for the last few years. We seem to have quite a bit of improvised or mostly-improvised music and a paucity of the more heavily notated or through-composed stuff. There's nothing inherently wrong with this; it's the results that matter anyway. Nonetheless, I can't help the sneaking suspicion that this condition represents a mere end run around the more logistically challenging process of putting on a concert-length presentation of fully notated music.

In no way do I wish to suggest that improvised music does not require individual or group practice, although I do think that it can be done well by a group that has never played together before, and that playing in the same configuration over a long period of time can lead to the formation of habits that may come to inhibit "real" creativity. There is, however, a certain flexibility present in that the instrumentation of the group, the duration of the performance, and the precise amount of rehearsal time required are infinitely more malleable than they are with notated music, which essentially dictates these things to us with few other options. And though I've been fortunate to work with a lot of really talented and genuine improvisers, we all know that there are people out there who are attracted to improvised music for all the wrong reasons.

Forgive the cynicism, but it seems to me that as a function of our eminent adaptability, us musicians have now figured out that when creation, rehearsal and performance take place simultaneously, it saves time and money. Hence, while I'm skeptical of the death of classical music per se, I do fear for the health of notated music to some extent. I've been giving some thought lately on how to bring more through-composed, mostly notated music to the ostensibly non-classical areas that I work in simply to provide a counterbalance to all of the improvisation. There's good reason to think that such conceptual diversification would be healthy for the performers and for the scene; it would also be good for improvised music, which I fear is becoming perfunctory without a foil.

The same would certainly be true of notated music were we in the opposite situation (hang out around classically trained string players if you don't believe me). As a teacher, my highest priority is to develop in my students both a firm grasp of notation and the ability to "play by ear." It is astonishing and disappointing to me the extent to which most musicians possess only one of these two skills, even when they are exceptional at the one they have; it is equally frustrating that the preferred method of working breaks down along stylistic lines, sometimes making collaboration difficult if not impossible. This is not surprising: a musician will not develop a given skill if their chosen musical endeavors do not demand it of them. By demanding it of students, we can give them the tools they need to have fulfilling musical lives in whatever stylistic area they wish to explore.

For those of us whose musical interests are broad enough that working entirely with or without notation is simply not possible, necessity is the mother of invention, and hence, we tend to be motivated to become equally comfortable with and without a piece of paper in front of us. However, since the two skills tend to benefit each other, even specialists would undoubtedly benefit from at least dabbling with the alternative (and let's face it, unless you have ultra-perfect pitch and can score-read Schoenberg orchestral pieces like a computer, there's room for improvement).

Encounters of the Very Difficult Kind

There are very few pieces in the solo tuba repertoire that are any good. There are even fewer pieces in the solo tuba repertoire that are any good that are not transcriptions. There are fewer pieces yet in the solo tuba repertoire that are any good that are not transcriptions and are written in post-tonal or "modernist" idioms. And there are even fewer pieces yet in the solo tuba repertoire that are any good, that are not transcriptions, that are written in post-tonal or "modernist" idioms, and that are for unaccompanied tuba rather than tuba with piano or large ensemble. In fact, I can only think of one, and that's William Kraft's Encounters II.

It dawned on me several months ago that if anyone should know this piece, it's me. I do, after all, aspire to be "the modernist tubist" that I've beenspecifically advised against becoming. I had bought the music years ago and never looked at it, so I had to dig it out from the bottom of the pile. While my opinion of the piece remains high, I've found it to be significantly harder than I expected...not in the typical ways, but in the most annoying ones. I've always had a knack for blurting out minor ninths in the extreme upper register and similar modernist acrobatics; my weaknesses are elsewhere, and this piece exposes all of them at once, particularly the extreme dynamics and the intricate multiphonics.

I've heard the piece performed live 3 times: once by Sam Pilafian at a summer program, once by my former teacher Jason Byrnes, and once this past summer at the most recent ITEC by Jens Bjørn-Larsen. All three made it sound easy, which no doubt accounts for a some of my shock at actually trying to learn to play the damn thing myself. This is good motivational material, as is the exposure of weaknesses in my playing, but above all, I find myself motivated to learn the piece because there seems to be a consensus that it is a good piece that just happens to be written for unaccompanied tuba in a "modernist" idiom. There aren't too many of those running around; in fact, it's tempting sometimes to wonder if the lack of certain kinds of good pieces for certain instruments doesn't have something to do with the instrument and its capabilities. Just knowing something is possible is very powerful, and while this piece is relatively short and obscure, it provides hope and a model for us Modernist Tubists.

09 October 2008

Composer Angst

It is a great irony of the creative process that we are likely the worst judges of our own work, but that our opinion matters most in their creation. We are often surprised at the works of famous composers that get cited as their personal favorites, and others are often surprised at the original works we cite as our greatest achievements. Familiarity is a game changer when it comes to musical perception, and the composer is likely to know their own work better than anyone else, perhaps occasionally to the point of becoming sick and tired of a piece that has been lots of work to complete. Then there is the ego, which wants us to succeed in the worst way.

It is a great paradox of the creative process that one can be unsatisfied with a piece without knowing what to do about it, or perhaps that one can be unsatisfied yet wholly convinced that the piece must remain as it is. The romanticized notion of the piece as a single idea is not helpful here; in fact, the fallacy inherent in it is laid bare when a good piece's imperfections are readily apparent. Each piece is the result of a series of decisions, and hence, when there is a problem of this sort, composers are apt to get hung up on how those decisions came to be made, resulting in a certain brand of angst unique to them as a group.

Troubleshooting one's process as if it were a computer program only goes so far. After such troubleshooting has failed, hitting coaches are known to occasionally tell struggling hitters, "See ball, hit ball." I've found a similarly simple approach to composition ("Hear music, write music") to be the easiest to live with.

07 October 2008

Pictures of Cats

One purpose of the current blog month experiment was to prove whether or not I was capable of producing something on a daily basis that anyone else would actually want to read and that had any relevance or use to them whatsoever. On a more basic level, it was also to see whether I was capable of turning out anything at all after several weeks of squeezing the last drops of creative juices from the language center of my brain, whether I could actually enjoy it, and perhaps also whether I would even remember to do so 31 days in a row, an experiment which, thanks to last night's offline adventures and non-blogging, now threatens to go unconducted, at least for another year.

I arrived home from work last night to learn that a band member I was expecting to see at a gig later in the evening was too sick to play. After playing phone tag for an hour or so with most of the rest of the group (including realizing that I didn't even have a couple of their phone numbers), we had agreed on a possible replacement and been lucky enough to secure his services for the evening. Set lists were overhauled, photocopies were made, and forms were talked down, and lo and behold, we played really well. I suspect that this scenario actually made better listeners and more formally aware and responsive bandmates out of all of us. Much as I value rehearsal and familiarity, there seems to me to be a certain focus and energy that is brought out only by playing with new people in new configurations on new material, especially when it's on a gig, not a rehearsal. It was a lot of fun, and while I wish no ill on any present or future bandmates, nor do I wish it on myself to have to call potential subs a mere matter of hours before the hit, in a perverse way, I do look forward to very occasionally being thrown into this sort of mayhem again, blogging be damned.

Upon learning that I had a blog, a student of mine recently expressed his disdain for the format, pointing out that other blogs he has seen consisted mostly or entirely of pictures of cats. Hopefully, we here at My Fickle Ears Dig It will not need to stoop quite that low in order to keep the posts coming throughout what's left of Blog Month 2008. However, nothing is out of the question, as we have now seen how quickly plans can change.

05 October 2008

Can Great Music Be Created By...Anyone?

A respondent to a Daniel Wolf posting asks whether part-time musicians can make great music. In fact, part-time musicians like Charles Ives have made great music, and hence, the question is answered. A better question to ask is whether it is likely that part-timers, full-timers, or anyone in particular for that matter, will make great music. No. No, it is not.

With the rate of success for everyone so low yet still resulting in an almost unmanageably vast and diverse body of work spanning many hundreds of years, one cannot in good conscience issue a blanket condemnation of either group for not keeping up their end of the bargain. One can, however, chide "professionals" for whoring themselves in order to make a living and then hiding behind a supposedly selfless commitment to making people happy by feeding them aural Splenda. Yes, one can say that. I just did.

An even better question ask is whether part-time bloggers can create great posts on a full-time basis. Don't answer that one.

04 October 2008

Looking on the Bright Side

If the imminent death of physical media means that used record stores will be inundated with CD's and selling them for the same cost as their LP's, sign me up now.

03 October 2008

Creative Aging

With today being my 26th birthday, this seems as good a time as ever to give some thought to the effects of age, experience, maturity etc. on musical creativity.

Do composers tend to get better with age? Is the opposite true to some extent of performers due to the physical nature of performing? A good many eminent jazz musicians died too young for us to study their examples in these respects, but what about the Dizzy Gillespies, Sonny Rollins, and Herbie Hancocks of the world, who did their best work as relatively young men? What about Joe Henderson and Stan Getz, who sustained an exceptionally high level of performance for decades even as their health declined? John Coltrane's career arc invites comparison with Beethoven's (early, middle and late periods), but how about Charlie Parker's with Schubert's (prolific output before an early death), Duke Ellington's with J.S. Bach's (longevity), or Albert Ayler's with Anton Webern's (small output, enormous influence, premature death)? The musician who makes a single landmark contribution tends to be remembered before the one who sustained a less exalted but perfectly respectable level consistently throughout their career. Still, the legacy of the former can be tainted by the appearance of having peaked too soon, and even more so by the appearance of having "sold out." A few musicians have abandoned creative activities altogether as they grew older, and very few take them up successfully for the first time late in life. Meanwhile, if a prodigy fizzles, is it because their fast progress burned them out faster, or because they were never that great in the first place? People my age will be watching the Eldars and Jay Greenbergs of the world with great curiosity over the coming decades for answers from our own time.

We can learn a little bit from studying past examples, but ultimately, we are all different and probably cannot predict our own trajectories. I often feel as if I would love to regain a certain amount of the naivite of my early creative efforts, if for no other reason than to reintroduce a certain kind of excitement that existed then but often seems to be gone forever now, even when I'm successful. The further one gets from this naivite, the more difficult the task of sustaining and improving one's work becomes; the minefield of both financial and social pressures is not for the faint of heart, and so the music must continue to be its own reward. My suspicion is not that I am becoming more or less creative with age, but that I am learning more as time goes on, which while useful and necessary, always mutes one's initial fascination with the subject matter at hand.

01 October 2008

How do you pronounce "Goutelas?"

How about "Uwis?" I'm curious.

One Small Step...

Somehow, a brass ensemble selection has made it onto the muzak rotation at the MSP airport. On behalf of the brass community, I'd like to express our collective gratitude for being able to count ourselves as players of instruments that don't particularly offend anybody or particularly capture their attention, right up there with the harp and wooden flutes of all kinds. This has, needless to say, not always been the case, and will likely continue not be the case outside of the already deafening public spaces our muzak will be charged with further muddying.

Of course, it was a contrapuntal, baroque-ish type of selection that was heard. It seems that each member of the non-offensive instruments club has their role: clarinetists get classical concerti, flutists get flash-and-trash theme and variations, strings get neo-romantic quartet music, and the brass get the post-Bach continuum. We're happy with it, though, especially because some of us weren't even around back then.

October Is Blog Month

October is Blog Month here at My Fickle Ears Dig It. For one month only, we will take on the structure, persona, habits, and style of a "real" blog just to see what it feels like. We will talk about ourselves a lot, link to sites that everyone else has already linked to, name drop without blinking, post inane entries at a rate which prevents anyone with half a life from keeping up with them, and maybe maybe even write a little bit about something that has nothing whatsoever to do with music (that is, if we are able to find anything else which interests us in the least).

This walk on the wild side is, of course, merely a ploy for increased exposure and recognition, the tactics of which are so pervasive elsewhere that we are shamelessly emboldened to undertake this task without a hint of apprehension. Should we find ourselves intoxicated by the thrill of this grand experiment, it may well become our default mode of operation well into November. More likely, however, as the month of October draws to a close, we will simply recede back into the shadows, regaining our rightful place as the most pedantic and least frequently published music blog you've never heard of.

01 September 2008

Abstract Music, Concrete Action

On the occasion of the Republican National Convention coming to my hometown, I offer this essay on the dynamic between art and activism, a subject I find myself returning to with greater frequency as the extent of the damage wrought by Bush and Company becomes more clear. -SK

Abstract Music, Concrete Action

If there is an upside to the catastrophic events that both the country and the world have endured at the hands of the Bush Administration, it is the opportunity to learn from history with the intent of preventing its repetition. While a general apathy and indifference on behalf of the American citizenry is a common to theme to which present and future commentators will no doubt return frequently, there must also come a time to evaluate specific actions of specific people at specific times: what they were doing and why, and what, perhaps, they could have done differently. As musicians specifically, but also more generally as artists, there has never been a better time to ask this question of ourselves and our peers, difficult as it may be to stomach the answers.

Despite the difficulty in objectively defining what is and is not art, let alone what constitutes good and bad art, many artists and audiences have come to accept as a matter of blind faith that the intended creation of art is an inherently positive and constructive action regardless of the content of the work or the circumstances of its creation. It is no coincidence that, within this group, those who see art primarily as a vehicle for social or political activism comprise a sizable majority. This essay seeks to refute and condemn this line of thinking, arguing instead that it is stifling and counterproductive from both an artistic and ethical standpoint. It proposes an alternative ethical framework by which art and activism are wholly separate endeavors, hence operating under the assumption that the two presently have a mutually destructive rather than constructive relationship. The author believes that current events in both the political and artistic spheres provide copious amounts of evidence in support of this position, but none so damning as the havoc wreaked by the Bush Administration at a time when art-as-activism complacency runs rampant among contemporary artists and audiences.


Artworks which are neither representational nor functional will never cease to be controversial, and nowhere is this more true than in music, often said to be the most abstract of all the arts. There is rarely a satisfying explanation for any person's attraction to the most abstract works of music, whether it be sought in the realm of hard science, sheer superstition, or anywhere in between, but even with such an explanation in hand, it would appear impossible to evaluate this attraction on an ethical level because aesthetic value judgments are of a fundamentally different type than ethical judgments. The abstract aesthetic value of any particular artwork is an issue destined to fall permanently outside the purview of morality, for insofar as such judgments are based on aesthetic properties, they are not moral or ethical in nature at all.

Nonetheless, abstract art as vocation poses an urgent ethical question should it come to dominate the individual's life sufficiently to preclude engaging in certain other activities. In other words, if community service, for example, is a necessary condition for moral integrity, and the demands of one's vocation interfere with the ability to perform community service, then the vocation is a barrier to achieving moral integrity. In being presented such a challenge, it is not altogether unusual to leap at any and all opportunities to kill two birds with one stone, or perhaps even to work a little bit too hard at interpreting a situation as such for one's own edification. How wonderful it would be if the service-minded musician could simply continue going about his or her business in a way that also fulfills some broader obligation to society; what a relief it would be to combine one's obligations to one's art with one's obligations to collective humanity. Hence, for musicians, the issue ultimately becomes not separating the good music from the bad, but understanding the limitations of both kinds when it comes to what (if anything) they are able to accomplish outside the realm of abstract sound.

Does the most abstract music contribute enough to the world to justify devoting one's life primarily or entirely to its creation instead of any number of other noble causes? For many who claim fealty to "The Arts," it would be blasphemous to answer "no," yet that is clearly the correct answer. To equate the creation of the most abstract music with humanitarianism is an egregious ethical misstep; to do so would be to conflate entertainment and service, essentially putting oneself before others in a plainly offensive manner. It could be rightly assumed that anyone who does so either is not aware of the scope of suffering and injustice that takes place in the world, or that this knowledge does not move them beyond a state of casual resignation. Those who believe the causes of art and service to be of comparable importance find themselves in an indefensible position. Were they to encounter a musician who held such views exclusively towards his or her own work, they would clearly see the error. What prevents them from making this connection, however, is a blind allegiance to "The Arts" collectively, a fatally relativistic mindset which leads to an inability and/or unwillingness to judge case-by-case, hence enabling the delusion of a concrete and objective value of all art based entirely on its appendices and little (if at all) on even their own feeble aesthetic judgments of its value in the abstract.

To rank the value of the most abstract music lower than that of service is not to denigrate the former, but simply to recognize the primacy of the latter. Musicians, after all, are people and citizens first. Those who desire to be so certain of their larger contribution to society would be wise to turn away from the maddeningly subjective realm of aesthetics and towards something simpler and unrelated. Community service, activism, and civic engagement are pursuits which are more widely acknowledged and immediately effective at making the world a better place than any single piece of music could ever be, no matter how great its abstract aesthetic properties or supposed activist content. That this view would be seen as philistine is symptomatic of a fundamental misunderstanding of not only of what it means to serve others but also of what the very essence of music really is. The most vital service is that which aspires to nothing beyond its scope as service, with the possible exception of the personal satisfaction derived from reflecting upon how these actions have benefitted others. Similarly, the most vital music is the realization of a sonic intent which deals wholly in terms of sound, free from any undue burden or obligation to serve other functions or agendas for its creator.

The more equally members of society share the burden of community service amongst each other, the less there is for each of them to do and the more time remains for pursuits such as art, whether it be as vocation or hobby. Conversely, painting art as service for one's own edification runs roughshod over the integrity, quality, and efficacy of both endeavors, leaving important acts of service for others to do, and condemning art to be judged functionally rather than aesthetically. It would not be unreasonable to assume that the potent appeal of combining art and service is in part responsible for the increasingly popular assertions that, among other things, art:

•makes kids smart
•keeps kids off drugs
•can be a vehicle for social change
•is a hallmark of civilized cultures
•is an essential part of the economy

It is left to the reader to consider whether any or all of these statements might get the cause and effect backwards. Either way, because consensus on aesthetic value is a logical impossibility, in no case can the value of art or music in the abstract ever be pointed to as an attribute in the public arena. Art in the abstract offers nothing remotely approaching the clear-cut and agreed upon value of making kids smarter or fueling a movement; it can have any value at all only in the mind of an individual who judges it as such via the aesthetic experience, an inherently subjective process that is not subject to ethical evaluation. This is what has driven a sizable majority of musicians and music lovers towards a trumping up the items listed above (among others) coupled with an auspicious and disingenuous refusal to argue in favor of art for its own sake. Alas, this is the only tenable position in the political arena, and in this capacity it has undoubtedly facilitated a smattering of progress here and there. However, it also presents a dangerous trap into which many a victim has fallen: having established a concrete and objective value for music itself as service, and by extension service to music as service to all, the advocate is wont to excuse themselves from other service obligations on the grounds that their involvement with or advocacy for music constitutes just such a contribution in and of itself.

One could not be faulted for being suspicious of this attitude simply by virtue of the quite obvious potential for abuse. The cumulative extent to which such abuse actually takes place is something which cannot be verified with any authority, yet even operating under the assumption that those who hold themselves in such high regard as dual function musician-servants are being entirely genuine as to what they believe they are accomplishing, it can be said that in aiming to combine the creation of sonic beauty with a selfless devotion to others, they achieve significantly less in both areas than they would if they were to pursue them separately.

This claim is easier to prove in the service area than the art area, and the discussion that has already taken place ought to suffice as support. When it comes to art, it is, of course, impossible to say conclusively whether it is true or not, for this depends on individual aesthetic judgments of artworks which aspire to make service or activist contributions. Suffice it to say that, despite often sympathizing strongly with the political viewpoints expressed by such artists, the author's experiences to this point have led to the formation of an utter contempt for such works, along with the strong feeling that the functional obligations placed on them are directly responsible for their high rate of failure in the aesthetic realm, as well as for instilling a certain aesthetic numbness in audiences who embrace the art-as-service framework.

What is much more easily established is the contradiction lying at the heart of service-oriented arts advocacy. The single-minded support that music education, for example, enjoys is predicated overwhelmingly on service attributes of questionable provenance (as in the list above) rather than the simple desire to involve children in music making for artistic and recreational reasons. Such advocacy would otherwise seem more like an irrational fixation, since countless other activities accomplish the same desired non-musical results even more effectively, but do not involve music making. One assumes that it is rational by virtue of being the result of an aesthetic attraction to certain pieces of music, but wishes more individuals would be honest about this in public. If making music was dangerous (like playing with guns), or completely inane (like talking on the phone), parents and arts advocates would not be so quick to extoll its value as a diversion for the kids. The support it enjoys is a tacit acknowledgment of the primacy of what can only be called its abstract aesthetic properties, regardless of whether or not these individuals are willing to admit it, or indeed if they are capable of understanding the relationship (their relationship with sound) at all.


Another problem with music as service is that, as with referring to "The Arts" collectively regardless of content, the term "music" is too broad. One must be an incorrigible relativist to support a service initiative that deals only in these most vague terms; the real question is: “Which music?” or "Which arts?" Turning to music based purely on its service value is a terrible way to proceed because this constitutes judging an artwork for nonaesthetic reasons (an act of which "judging a book by its cover" is the most famous example). Perhaps the given service initiative requires that the music must be able to be written and/or realized by those with no previous training; perhaps lyrical subject matter is prescribed based on demographics; or perhaps stylistic constraints are imposed in order ensure that the particular participants are engaged for the appropriate amount of time. When it does come to judging pieces of abstract music aesthetically, individuals seldom agree on anything; as socially uncomfortable an option as this might be, it is also the most honest. Conversely, in being relatively objective, judging music based on non-aesthetic properties such as service value enables a broader consensus, but it forces all involved to take on a false consciousness, suppressing their own capacity for the perception of beauty and, in place of this, embracing whatever functional purpose it is that the artwork is intended to lend itself to.

It is a truth of human nature that the capacity for the perception of beauty is always too powerful to merely be turned on and off as the beholder wishes. The impulse is stronger yet when the beholder finds themselves in a setting which they have been socially conditioned to treat as an opportunity for aesthetic contemplation of an artwork. Hence, practictioners of service music are faced with the challenge of bypassing any innate or acquired aesthetic faculties their audience might possess and appealing directly to this social conditioning. Having suppressed the more immediate artistic motivations that typically lie behind the creation of an artwork, is it no surprise that the service artist’s rate of aesthetic success is so low. By presenting an artwork to be judged non-aesthetically, the service artist not only forces an uncomfortable dishonesty on the audience, but also commits a dishonest act themselves.


Aside from community service per se, there is another sense in which music is often viewed as service, if not only implicitly. It has become fashionable to make a distinction between musicians who "play for themselves" and those who "play for an audience," the latter hence being elevated to the moral high ground and the former dismissed as self-indulgent nihilists. In reality, this is nothing more than the institutionalization of popular taste in the colloquial musical vocabulary of the day, a point underscored by the fact that those musicians who "play only for themselves" are without exception the ones working in abstract "modern" or "avant-garde" idioms.

By the logic of this music-as-service framework, giving people what they want to hear is an act of service which the musician is ethically obligated to fulfill, while the act of presenting something unfamiliar and challenging is condemned simply by virtue of the discomfort it is sure to impart to the uninitiated (never mind the possibility that anyone in the audience may actually desire such a challenge). The value of a piece of music is then determined solely by the sheer number of people who line up to consume it, and musicians who serve others by pandering to them are commended whereas those whose personal musical voice is at odds with mass taste are scolded. Among other things, it is a very capitalistic perspective, having distinctive echoes of “the customer is always right,” and indeed, appealing to as many people as possible is also the most lucrative option available to a musician, which should be the first hint that not only is this position ethically flawed, it is altogether backwards.

In practice, few musicians attain mass commercial success without compromising something artistic, but in such cases, rare as they may be, those few musicians deserve no more accolades for being marketable than a professional basketball player does for being tall. They may also be talented, but above all, they are exceedingly lucky that large numbers of other people are attracted to them for something they would be doing anyway. For the others (the vast majority), there are usually some difficult choices to make along the way, and those that stick to their guns are the heroes, not the goats, for they are the ones that ensure the biodiversity that keeps the contemporary musical ecosystem running. Of course, one can decide to compromise in certain situations and not in others, and all else being equal, this is probably the most practical approach where earning a living through one's art is the first priority. No one who compromises is a bad person for this reason alone, but does anyone believe that such individuals are motivated more by some abstract concept of service embedded in reaching the most people they can rather than by the material gains (however meager) to be reaped from wider appeal?

The traditional dichotomy between art and entertainment is often criticized for jumping to the conclusion that one cannot encompass the other, and it is indeed tenuous to assume that works traditionally categorized as art are not entertaining per se to their audience. The word “entertainment” often connotes something casual, passive, and inane, whereas art is considered to be more serious, stimulating, or complicated, and hence the two are seen as somehow mutually exclusive. This dynamic has been institutionalized in the lexicon in the form of terms like “easy listening” without taking into account that there are some who find it very easy to listen to avant-garde music and very difficult to listen to anything else. In this case as always, whether a piece is “easy” or “difficult” to listen to has nothing to do with its own intrinsic properties and everything to do with who exactly it is that is listening.

The “playing for yourself”/”playing for others” dichotomy is a crafty little tag line, something Karl Rove could have come up with if he did not have more important things to worry about. It draws a righteous line in the sand between the selfish and the selfless, simply, effectively, and ignorantly. Attractive as it might sound, there really is no aesthetic moral high ground at all to be claimed by artists; in ferreting out a particular person's impact on society broadly, their actions as a citizen are infinitely more important than their actions as a musician. To that end, it stands to reason that the world would be better off with honest musicians who serve their community in their spare time than it would be with great hordes of complacent fame-seeking narcissists who think that they are making the world a better place simply by existing.

Instead of trying to make music look like service any way it can, society ought to be capable of admitting that there is something inherently selfish in why musicians play music (not to mention in why audiences listen to it), and that without this, many great masterpieces would never have been created. As great as these masterpieces might be, abstract music is no substitute for concrete action. Musicians, for their part, ought to be willing to admit that a satisfied audience takes less away from a performance than a poverty-stricken family takes away from the food shelf, and that the musician who feels a such a glow from reaching that audience could in fact experience the same feeling magnified tremendously without touching their instrument and likely do more good in the process. The ever-expanding diversity of the contemporary musical landscape seems to ensure that there will be something out there for everyone, but in turn, everyone must be tolerant of this diversity and allow it to exist without projecting non-aesthetic moralization onto it. Meanwhile, there exists a staggeringly diverse array of needs in the world, and scarcely a single one of them is most effectively addressed through art of any kind.