The Weird Obsession Phase: shortcut or obstacle for young composers?

Recently in a conversation with a composer some years my junior, I was fascinated to recognize a younger version of me: utterly bored with familiar sounds and positive that their unique ideas around some musical niche or theoretical quirk will pave their way to genius status and shape the future of Western classical music. For me, this Weird Obsession Phase, as I’ve decided to call it, began with an excessive enthusiasm for Elliott Carter’s method of combining minor thirds and tritones to create all-interval tetrachords, and ended in several pieces of music and a slightly fanatical paper with terrifying color-coded charts, the substance of which is summarized in the meme above. As I listened to Younger Version of Me expounded upon their devotion to a similar obsession, I began to wonder if this Weird Obsession Phase, awkward though it may be, is a necessary rite of passage for every young composer, a vital part of the growing pains that eventually lead us to a more grounded, well-informed, and individual artistic identity. When I reflect on my own Weird Obsession Phase, I can identify at least three positive outcomes that proved essential in my development:

I became a post-tonal theory badass overnight.
My Weird Obsession was the key that unlocked music theory for me. Given the sad and tormented history of my freshman and sophomore theory classes, I never imagined I’d walk out of an advanced theory class with an A…but that’s exactly what happened a few months after the onset of my Weird Obsession. I began devoting numerous hours of my personal time to messing with my crackpot all-interval tetrachord ideas, and this resulted in two incredibly useful skills: I developed a very strong “mental piano” that could be adapted to any audiation or mentalization exercise, and I become completely secure with the ins and outs of integer notation, pitch class sets, and tone rows before I ever set foot in my first post-tonal theory class.

I got better at analyzing what I was writing.
Creating nerdy, overly-complicated theoretical frameworks for composition – if somewhat naïve in its aims and imagined scope – was like a shot of growth hormone for my budding composer brain. Those crazy color-coded graphs, for all their retrospective silliness, trained me to be more self-evaluative and take a step back every so often to analyze what I was writing in terms of the theory that had sparked my compositional decisions. This in turn taught me to adapt my analytical approach to the aims of the particular piece I was working on, as I found myself often departing from my initial theoretical framework during the composing process to incorporate other kinds of musical ideas…which brings me to my third point…

I learned to balance theoretical ideas with following my intuitive musical sense.
Happily for me, my all-interval tetrachord obsession was grounded in a liking for the actual sonorities, and not just their theoretical coolness. That being the case, whenever I found the pre-compositional map I had created to be in conflict with where my ear intuitively wanted a melodic line or harmonic progression to go, I felt free to experiment with those intuitive options rather than remain rigidly within the bounds of my pre-compositional work. I found real joy in this push-and-pull between my theoretical frameworks and my musical intuition, and embracing that tension significantly revved up my maturation as a savvy musical decision-maker.

What about the drawbacks?
Though it certainly increased my overall social awkwardness score by a good many points, my Weird Obsession Phase was an incredibly valuable shortcut to greater musical competence and compositional maturity. That said, I feel there are two significant pitfalls to the Weird Obsession Phase that young composers should watch out for, even as they embrace the useful aspects of this particular form of nerdom:

Rigid adherence may stand in the way of further learning.
One student composer I knew in my undergrad days was so enthralled with their Weird Obsession that they refused to try other compositional techniques or even incorporate the feedback their teachers offered to help them develop versatility and technical prowess. If your Weird Obsession is preventing you from exploring new territory and developing a variety of skills, then it’s no longer serving you. Instead, it threatens to stifle your creativity and impede your development. I think most of us have the ability to recognize when our Obsession is no longer serving us, and will move on accordingly. So, by all means enjoy the adrenalin ride of your Weird Obsession while it lasts, but be willing to allow other interests and even short-term practical goals like meeting a deadline or learning a new skill to organically edge it out of the way.

If it starts to define your creative identity, a crisis may follow.
Around the same time as my own Weird Obsession, I knew another young composer with an equally intense Weird Obsession who followed said obsession all the way to an expensive overseas degree program that catered to devotees…only to become profoundly bored with the obsession to the point of choosing to abandon the writing of concert music altogether. I want to honor this person’s journey and point out that this was probably exactly what needed to happen to launch them into a musical career that will bring them more fulfillment. However, it strikes me that some drama could have been avoided if their Weird Obsession hadn’t been quite so central to their creative identity. Even at the height of my own all-interval tetrachord obsession, I managed to recall that the joy I found in musical experimentation and my more adaptable and run-of-the-mill talents (e.g., a strong melodic sense) were the real guiding lights of my creative identity. For this reason, my caution to young composers is to realize that your Weird Obsession is what you’re into right now, and NOT who you are as a creative artist. Your potential as a creative person always transcends the bounds of whatever you are creating right now!

We could all do with a Weird Obsession Phase, or perhaps even several, so long as they’re tempered by a good dose of self-awareness and willingness to flex as new creative needs and interests enter our lives. The real value of our Weird Obsessions, however enthralling we may find them in themselves, is in their ability to provide us with a fun and effective path to continuous discovery and personal development.


A Night at the Orchestra with Hegel and Mickey Mouse

Mickey Mouse

As I took my customary seat in the local symphony hall at my customary time of 7:58pm Friday evening, I noticed something seemed a bit different about the audience this time: It was younger. And I don’t just mean the 20- and 30-somethings such as myself whom the orchestra was trying so hard to attract with student discounts and themed after-parties, although two such people were sitting directly behind me and two more directly in front of me. But the first two audience members to my right were middle-school kids, and to the left were a woman and her son, who looked to be just seven or eight years old.

Glancing at the program, I realized why parents might have picked this night to bring their children to the symphony. The concert opener was Paul Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, famous as a segment from the classic Disney movie Fantasia starring Mickey Mouse as the title character who conjures a magic broom to mop the floor for him. I remembered this piece mostly as the subject of a bizarrely pedantic dispute between two scholars I had to read in a music theory seminar over whether the presence—or lack thereof—of a complete tonic chord at the end of the piece implied an authorial voice narrating the action of the story.

But not surprisingly, it seemed that the concertgoers around me had very different associations with it. As soon as the first downbeat unleashed the ethereal chords representing the magic spell, the young boy to the left began talking excitedly to his mother, although thankfully softly enough to only be audible during the quiet moments in the music. At one point, I think I heard him squeal, “Is this the part where they fight?” (I’ve only watched the Fantasia short once—because of that same class—but I don’t remember any fighting in it…)

But it wasn’t just the kids who were enjoying Mickey’s music. The young woman in front of me seemed to be squirming with delight as she rocked back and forth in time with the magic broom’s comically grotesque melody. Perhaps she had grown up watching the cartoon too. I began to wonder whether Walt Disney had really succeeded in his attempt at bringing classical music into popular culture while actually making money in the process. The remaining pieces on the program—Chausson’s Poéme, Ravel’s Tzigane, and Stravinsky’s Petrushka—were all based on dramatic or narrative subtexts too and kept the audience well engaged, if not enthralled (although the young boy seemed to max out his attention span after about 15 minutes of Stravinsky). But, I wondered, how many of these people would have bought tickets to the symphony had The Sorcerer’s Apprentice not opened the program?

For a seminar I’m taking in aesthetics, I recently read an essay by the Enlightenment philosopher G. W. F. Hegel bearing the ungainly title “The Oldest System-Program of German Idealism.”[1] Hegel laments the difficulty of closing the gap between “enlightened” thinkers and the “unenlightened” masses. This gap, he says, manifests itself in religion (as reason versus faith), in art (as what we call the highbrow-versus-lowbrow divide), and in philosophy (as the difference between what Hegel sees as authentic philosophy and popular “mythology”). He then proposes

an idea which, as far as I know, has not occurred to anyone—we need a new mythology. However, this mythology must be at the service of the ideas; it must become a mythology of reason. Until we render the ideas aesthetic, that is, mythological, they will not be of any interest to the populace. … Mythology must become philosophical in order to make the people reasonable, and philosophy must turn mythological in order to make the philosophers sensuous. Then there prevails eternal unity among us![2]

Thus, Hegel wants to enlist the arts as a medium for his “program” of unifying humanity under enlightened ideas. He envisions them as not only a sort of marketing ploy to interest ordinary people in philosophy, but also a way of drawing the philosophers down from their rarefied abstract contemplations into the “sensuous” world inhabited by ordinary people. Out of the great cultural triad of art, religion, and philosophy, Hegel is obviously most concerned with advocating for the latter. But many artists of a religious persuasion would express a similar sentiment: art can not only be a means of embodying spiritual truths in a way that is relatable to embodied humans, but also of ensuring that spiritual people continue to enjoy the physical creation rather than all becoming ascetic hermits.

What Fantasia seems to have done, then, is to complete the triad, using art-as-mythology to further the cause of art-as-philosophy. It could be considered an attempt to convey supposedly higher-level values in simple, vivid images understandable to ordinary people, which Hegel calls “mythology,” although we might also speak of popular science, pop spirituality, or pop psychology alongside folktale and myth. But Disney has literally imported “mythological” characters in cartoon form into works of classical music, in hopes of achieving a rapprochement between, perhaps even a synthesis of, the two. Since the split of classical and popular music culture a century or so ago, numerous music organizations have attempted similar projects, with mixed results (as my local symphony can attest).

But ultimately, the goal is not merely tricking listeners into discovering art music with the promise of familiar movie themes. It’s equally about reminding jaded graduate students that good music can be enjoyed on a simple level too, just like a silly cartoon—without worrying about such minutiae as whether there’s a C in the last chord.

For the record, though, there isn’t.

[1] The essay is technically anonymous, and some scholars believe it to be the work of one of Hegel’s colleagues, such as the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, or a collaboration between Hegel, Hölderlin, and F. W. J. Schelling.

[2] Thomas Pfau, trans., Friedrich Hölderlin: Essays and letters on theory (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988), 155-156.

The Artist’s Simple* Guide to Choosing a Career (*actually, not)

chansonnier de zeghere van male 3

I recently finished reading Alex Ross’ book The Rest is Noise, “a history of the 20th century through its music,” as the jacket puts it. I grew up well-acquainted with classical music of the 18th– and 19th-century variety (my parents owned a 10-disc set called “The Top 100 Masterpieces of Classical Music, 1685-1928”) but I didn’t really discover the 20th century until I ran across a composer named George Crumb my senior year of college and then spent the next few years breathlessly trying to catch up to the present day in classical music while simultaneously completing multiple graduate degrees. So I appreciated Ross’ weaving the various strands of 20th-century music into one sweeping narrative, which gave me a new perspective on the traditions to which the current generation’s composers are heirs.

Reading Ross’ accounts of composers’ personal and philosophical motivations made me reevaluate the fundamental reasons why I make new music. I realized that we as artists have a choice about who we write for. I use “write” simply because it describes my work as a composer, but the same choices apply to creators in any medium with substitution of the appropriate verb. These choices, in turn, fundamentally determine what sort of music, words, pictures, or performances, etc. we create.

First, an artist must choose whether to make art for his or her self, or for others. For writers in the performing arts, the “others” they must consider are both audiences and performers. This is not, however, to draw a distinction between work that appeals to performers and to audiences; in practice, they are the same. A strong performer who truly resonates with what they perform will almost inevitably share that experience with those who listen. Thus, the composer shares their work first with a small group of performers, and then through them with a larger audience.

Writing either for oneself or for others requires another choice between three alternatives, which manifest in slightly different ways. If you write for yourself, it could be for self-expression (releasing heartache, joy, wonder, or angst pent up inside you), self-discovery (learning about yourself and crystallizing your unique abilities more clearly), or research (discovering new possibilities in the world outside yourself). Similarly, if you write for others, it could be for entertainment (allowing them to vicariously release their own joy, angst or whatever through your own work), catharsis (helping lead them towards revelations that catalyze personal healing and growth), or mind-stretching (enlarging their sense of being by making them aware of new ways of being in the world).

In either case, the first option consists of giving either yourself or others what you know you want, whether expression or gratification. The second is to give yourself or others what you may unconsciously want but are afraid to admit, finding a transcendent solution to problems that have haunted you but which you have been unable to articulate. The third option in each case, however, is supposedly detached and disinterested, satisfying no need, fulfilling no desire other than pure intellectual curiosity.

A self-motivated artist must be indifferent to the possibility of having a career. Such artists may in fact have successful careers if their motivation dovetails with audiences’ demand, but this is purely coincidental. Charles Ives made his living selling insurance by day and composing at night because he knew (and didn’t care) that no one would buy his work.  In recent generations, academia, with its promise of tenure, has provided refuge to numerous such composers, freeing them to pursue their own work without needing to please the masses. However, achieving a tenured position typically requires one to first write to please others in a very superficial way: catering to the tastes of one’s professional references and committee members, a burden from under whose weight some artists’ creative spirit never rebounds.

I’ve always believed that having an other-centered motivation makes more sense for an artist, both idealistically and practically—idealistically, because it is hard to justify one’s vocation on purely internal grounds, without benefiting the world somehow, and practically, because writing for others greatly increases the chance of receiving some form of compensation for one’s work. Which level your motivation aims at—whether you aspire to create entertainment, catharsis, or mind-stretching—determines the size of your potential audience and therefore the feasibility of having a good career.

People are only going to pay for something they feel they need, and only a few people feel a palpable need for intellectual stimulation (again, being in academia likely distorts one’s perception of the size of this group). However, many, if not most, people do want entertainment, even emotional support, and are willing to pay for it (sadly, in modern society, we often pay for the mere illusion of it). Of course, it is still up to you as the artist to introduce yourself to your potential audience, but maximizing your exposure won’t do you nearly as much good if there are only a dozen people in the world who could be interested in what you create.

In addition, the kind of other-centered motivation you choose determines the range of styles in which you can write. Consumers of entertainment are looking for a known quantity; your local symphony orchestra plays the “Emperor” Concerto every year not because patrons are wondering what it sounds like, but precisely because they already know, and they know they like it. Art music and entertainment music do not have to occupy separate worlds, but the composer has to stay firmly within the styles most people are familiar with in order to do both. If you are writing for catharsis, you can push people out of their comfort zones a little, so long as you bring them back to a comprehensible place by the end. A true experimentalist spirit justifies your work solely for stretching performers’ bodies, listeners’ ears, and everyone’s minds; in that case, the more radical the style, the better.

In trying to become a composer as I was inhabiting the world of higher education, I was taught to assume a hierarchy among these goals. Naturally, most academics, having the security to pursue self-expression, prized that set of motives above those that reached out to hoi polloi of the outside world. Within each triad, entertainment, the bread and circuses of the masses, ranked the lowest, as did self-expression, a naïvely Romantic concept. Slightly better was trying to improve the uncultured masses through catharsis, or oneself through personal growth and self-knowledge. But the loftiest motivation for all creative work, as in all the other departments of the university, was surely research—finding out new sounds purely for the thrill of discovery. If you could get people to sit through the results of your experimentation, so much the better; the greatest service we could do for our audiences was to stretch their minds.

But after contemplating Ross’s history, I realized that even I, as a (hopefully) lifelong academic, don’t actually live according to such principles. I listen to a fair amount of 20th– and 21st-century music in a conscious effort to stretch my mind and my ears, but I’m not doing it so much for pleasure as out of duty: as an aspiring professional, I feel I ought to be aware of the latest developments in my field. But in those times when I need the comfort of music to help me get through the difficulties of life, I don’t turn to ultra-modern music, even though I live with it constantly in my professional work. (I eat spinach every day, too, but I still don’t consider it comfort food.) I listen to what I’m thoroughly comfortable with, to music I’ve heard dozens of times before which holds no surprises for me. (This may be partly because I tend to strongly associate any piece of music with the circumstances in which I first heard it. Thus, I’ve found it’s dangerous to listen to new pieces of music during difficult life experiences, because if it turns out to be worth listening to again, it will forever be linked to bad memories in my mind.)

All this is to say, I now believe those academic-composer voices may have been wrong: for me at least, research is not the goal of art. I would be much more satisfied to know I created something that another person might want to listen to again and again, drawing comfort and happiness from it repeatedly over the course of their life. But this is no excuse to just write sappy, unadventurous music. Instead, it is a call to pursue the tension between stretching listeners’ ears to enlarge the range of pieces that can have a cathartic, comforting effect for them, and writing music that inhabits that sweet spot, giving them time to actually enjoy it. It’s a challenging paradox to balance, but anything less is short-sells both my art and my fellow humans.

Mazes, Traveling Salesmen, and the Aesthetics of Spontaneity: Stephen Goss, Labyrinth

Labyrinth, by British composer Stephen Goss, was commissioned by the Guitar Foundation of America for their 2016 International Concert Artist Competition, where it received some outstanding performances, particularly by competition winner Xavier Jara and runner-up Andrea De Vitis. Dedicated to the memory of Italian novelist and philosopher Umberto Eco, Labyrinth takes inspiration from Eco’s book From the Tree to the Labyrinth. Eco contrasts the images of the dictionary or “tree of knowledge,” which organizes the world into a finite, closed loop of connections that can be exhaustively known, and the encyclopedia or “labyrinth” of knowledge, which allows for practically infinite ways of connecting the dots to find order in the world.

Goss sees this distinction as parallel to the difference between a classical labyrinth (traditionally found on the floor of a cathedral), consisting entirely of “a single path from the mouth to the goal,” and a maze, “which gives the traveler choices for the route, some of which lead to dead ends.” An even better metaphor, he suggests, might be a network of points “in which every point can be connected to any other point.” This suggests the classic computational problem of the traveling salesman, who seeks to find the shortest route that visits each of a certain list of cities.

France, Eure et Loir, Chartres, Notre Dame de Chartres Cathedral listed as World Heritage by UNESCO, Labyrinth of the Cathedral

Labyrinth, Chartres Cathedral, France

Thus, Labyrinth is constructed in a series of 13 short fragments, played without pause. These may be literal quotations, clever reworkings, or outright forgeries of works from various periods of music history. Goss specifies which fragments should be played first and last, but instructs the performer to play the remaining fragments in a different order every time, without omitting any. This instance of mobile form (that is, the piece has no determinate order of sections) presents two related challenges to the performer: one practical and one aesthetic.

The practical problem is one of memory. For many musicians, playing confidently from memory is one of the greatest hurdles they have overcome in their training, and they feel a certain pride in being able to play an entire piece, start to finish, without the score. The problem with a work like Labyrinth is that it must not be played start to finish. Nor, if you take Goss’s instructions literally, can it be played in any of the orders one has previously used. No need to worry about running out of possible orders, though: there are 11!, or approximately 40 million, possible permutations!

Instead, the challenge in playing the fragments in a non-linear fashion is to remember not only which fragments one has already played in that performance but also which orders one has followed in previous performances. When Labyrinth was the set piece for the GFA International Concert Artist Competition, the judges employed someone to mark each contestant’s ordering of the sections to ensure no one played in the same way in different rounds of the competition. Some of the contestants I spoke to solved this problem by dividing the fragments into three or four chunks of fragments which always occurred consecutively, so that they only had to remember which chunks they had already played.

In my opinion, this solution follows the letter but not the spirit of Goss’s instructions. One of the beauties of mobile form is its potential for improvisation, the ability to choose in the moment what you will play next. Therefore, as I practiced this piece, I decided to also practice making up the order on the fly. To be sure, this comes at the cost of a less-than-perfectly-smooth transition now and then, but I think the marvelous freedom it affords is worth the price. I think of it like a maze, where each junction requires a choice: sometimes the choice can be made decisively, but other times there will be a slight hesitation, and that’s okay.

Whether the performer plans the order of sections in advance or decides it spontaneously, they will then have to confront the aesthetic problem of performing Labyrinth: how to decide which sections should follow one another. One approach would be to do so randomly or by some statistical process: one could roll dice to determine the order, play every other (or every third, etc.) segment all the way through, follow reverse alphabetical order of the fictional composers’ last names, and so on. However, such a mechanical approach seems lacking in artistry. For me, some segments will naturally follow each order in a more aesthetically pleasing way, especially if they are tonally related or have pitches in common.

In other words, the performer of Labyrinth is obliged to execute a sort of real-world traveling-salesman problem, determining which fragments lie “closest” together in musical space and constructing a route that connects them all in an efficient—and elegant—manner. This process could very truly be described as playful, even competitive. I remember visiting the Human Maze in Winter Park, Colorado as a child and trying to find my way to the stations with the letters M, A, Z, and E to stamp my passport and get out of the maze. At the age of four, I was only able to complete this quest after several trips up the lookout tower in the middle of the maze and a good deal of help from my father. Meanwhile, older children and adults would dash past me, trying to complete the maze in record time. (Two decades later, I read that the creator of that maze started a successful business franchising his setup to other amusement parks and resorts throughout the country.)

Winter Park Amaze'n Maze

Human maze, Winter Park, Colorado

However, you cannot simply calculate the ideal ordering of fragments in Labyrinth in advance and then play that. More specifically, you can never prove that you have found the ideal order, according to your aesthetic tastes or anyone else’s. Remember, once the number of points gets large enough, the actual traveling-salesman problem can only be solved by a computer large enough to pass for a minor planet. Various algorithms can generate reasonably good paths, but it is extremely difficult to prove that no shorter path exists. In particular, so-called “greedy” algorithms, which operate by simply traveling to the nearest unvisited point to one’s current location, tend to fare poorly in finding an optimal solution, since they run the risk of having the last two or three unvisited points be widely separated from each other. Similarly, it would be easy in Labyrinth to get stuck with only one or two segments left to play which didn’t pair well with each or with the ending.


Visualization of the traveling salesman problem

My personal solution to performing Labyrinth was to envision each fragment as a point in a network, with paths connecting each pair of points, but with some paths weighted more heavily than others according to their efficiency. (In computational theory, this is apparently known as an “ant-colony” algorithm.) That is, I will tend to choose certain transitions more often which I think flow more smoothly. These weights may be stronger for certain pairs of segments than others, but in every case, but I will allow myself to choose even “awkward” transitions a small percentage of the time. For example, I particularly liked following up the “Scherzo” segment with “Contrapunctus,” both because of their common pitch B-flat and because of the musical humor of following a quote from a witty scherzo by Beethoven with one from J. S. Bach’s incredibly serious Art of Fugue. I thought of making a rule that these two segments would always appear next to each other in my performances of Labyrinth, but the few times I allowed myself to break this rule, I always seemed to come up with an especially intriguing order! One of my solutions is recorded at this link.

Chartres Labyrinth Outdoor

Garden labyrinth behind Chartres Cathedral, France

Classical performers in the Western tradition are trained to learn pieces of music linearly and by exact repetition. Everything is scripted and rehearsed, thought out beforehand; non-linear, spontaneous, or improvisatory performance feels strange and uncomfortable. Sometimes I wonder if this dynamic carries over into my life outside of music as well; I often find myself rehearsing what I will say in various social situations beforehand so I can put on a polished show when the time comes. Learning and performing Labyrinth has led me to explore an alternative mode of performing—even a mode of being—which I have found incredibly freeing and stretching. Having a flexible repertoire of responses which I can draw from at will, leaning more on tried-and-true favorites if necessary but mixing in new ventures as well, feels empowering, both in music and in life.

Music of Truth and Reconciliation? Christos Hatzis, Going Home Star

Many musicians today are pondering how they as artists can respond to injustice and violence in the world. Does the very act of creating beauty somehow counteract the destructive effects experienced by those who suffer? Or is it possible for a work of art to actively promote healing and restoration while still remaining a work of art rather than a statement of political activism? And is it possible for musicians to support this work of reconciliation in their music if they have to identify with the perpetrators of the injustice? Greek-Canadian composer Christos Hatzis engages compassionately and provocatively with these questions in his haunting ballet, Going Home Star.

(A brief video trailer for the ballet is included above, as an example of the staged production. The complete soundtrack has been released on the Centrediscs label and is available through streaming sites such as Naxos Music Library and YouTube.)


Going Home Star was commissioned by the Royal Winnipeg Ballet under the auspices of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The Canadian government and First Nations (the accepted Canadian term equivalent to “Native American” in the US) leaders agreed to set up the commission to document the abuses of First Nations peoples under the country’s residential school system. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, all aboriginal and Inuit children were required to attend church-run, government-funded boarding schools intended to assimilate them into Western culture, language, and religion. Aside from the alienation and emotional trauma inflicted on families as a result of this forced separation, in many cases children at the schools were physically or sexually abused by the clergy who were supposedly teaching them. Prior to coming across Hatzis’ ballet, I had been completely unaware of this dark chapter in the history of my northern neighbors. Hearing and reading the story made me not only want to know more about it, but to care more too.

And the story of the ballet does in fact draw audiences to care about the atrocities of the residential schools by presenting two individuals who have been wounded by it. Annie and Gordon, two young First Nations people, are struggling to find their way in urban Canada after going through the residential school system as children. While Annie works in a hair salon by day and escapes to partying and drugs at night, Gordon lives as a homeless person on the streets. As Hatzis describes it[1], Annie is “trying to make it in the white world… It is only as she’s failing in that kind of life because she’s being discriminated [against] that she realizes she’s not who she’s trying to be, and she begins to discover all her own hurts hiding all along inside her from the residential school experience.” After Annie and Gordon meet and fall in love, they begin the painful process of confronting, even reliving, the memories of their past in order to reclaim their cultural and personal identity and work towards some measure of healing.

For Hatzis, writing the music for Going Home Star posed both artistic and personal problems. In creating a dramatic work, Hatzis aims to inhabit the persona of his characters, feel what they feel, and let the music flow from that experience. Naturally, for a subject fraught with such a dark and disturbing background, this experience proved emotionally draining over the course of the writing process. Furthermore, Hatzis was forced to confront the tension between the core spirituality of the characters and their story and that of his own life and work. With roots in the Byzantine church, Hatzis describes himself as a non-denominational Christian, and many of his works deal with spiritual or mystical themes from the Christian tradition. Yet he recognizes that the atrocities of the residential school system were perpetrated directly by various Christian denominations who tried to impose their religion on the First Nations people, and Annie and Gordon’s process of healing comes from growing back into their distinctive Native American spirituality. Thus, Hatzis confesses, “In some ways, the things that I believe in have become a source of pain for the people whose story I am trying to tell… My catharsis, my salvation, was [in asking], how honestly can I tell their story, even if mine can be placed in a very dark light? It has been a challenge for my own faith, for sure. I don’t think your faith is any good if you don’t challenge it: if it survives the challenge, then it’s real; if it doesn’t, then it’s not.”

While Hatzis faced this spiritual tension between his subject matter and his personal beliefs with remarkable openness and authenticity, the project itself posed the real danger of cultural imperialism, as he was tasked with “telling a Native story in the most non-Native kind of way: a ballet, which was invented in the court of Louis XIV.” It would be easy, given the circumstances of the commission, to co-opt the Native story by repackaging it in a Western genre, thereby predisposing the audience to view it through a Eurocentric cultural lens rather than on its own terms. His solution was to adopt a postmodern approach and rely on collage, irony, and parody to critique Western cultural standards, bringing them down from their assumed normative status to an equal footing with the First Nations culture.

To accomplish this, Hatzis deploys a dizzying array of musical and sonic materials. Native traditions are represented by several astonishing passages of katajjaq (Inuit throat singing, traditionally done in competition with a partner but here performed in a solo version by the remarkable vocalist Tanya Tagaq, who has forged a distinctive career as a solo katajjaq artist), several authentic First Nations songs and chants (as sung by Steve Wood and the Northern Cree Singers), and spoken accounts of survivors of the residential school system (narrated with beautiful simplicity by Wood and Tagaq). Modern Anglo-Canadian culture is strongly present as well, running the gamut from lowbrow (tango and dubstep) to highbrow (quotations from famous ballets like The Rite of Spring and Swan Lake, as well as something that can perhaps be best described as “Anglo-American classical lite”—imagine a Canadian remake of Appalachian Spring). Meanwhile, several distorted versions of the famous “Old Hundredth” hymn tune (known to many modern Christians as “Praise God from Whom All Blessings Flow”) and some original music from the court of Louis XIV (a pompous march by Lully, also distorted in various ways) suggest the colonialism of the early white settlers and the priests that followed. Finally, the electronics track accompanying the live score includes a diverse collection of musique concrète sounds, from trains passing, church bells, northern birds, and flames burning, to human screams, gasps, and giggles.

By placing Native American, Anglo-American, European and purely natural sounds as equal components within this gigantic sonic collage, Hatzis raises the question in listeners’ minds as to what cultural mindset they will use as the norm in interpreting the work. For example, as a listener familiar with the Western musical tradition but not with Native American music, my first instinct was to perceive references to the latter as simple exoticism, evoking a “primitive other,” while interpreting the Western-style music according to the emotional cues I’ve learned (this tune is happy, while that one is sad). As I continued to listen, however, I became aware how the Native music contains an equally diverse range of emotional content of which I am largely unaware, while the quotations from Western music could equally be seen, from a Native point of view, as simply standing for the invasive “other” culture. For example, while the “Old Hundredth” tune is constantly transformed in its emotional connotations, appearing now as a festive dance with trumpets and timpani, now as a solemn elegy with lush strings, it always refers to the supposed “Christianizing” influence of the residential schools.

I was initially drawn to Hatzis’ work for its collage, quotation, and distortion of pre-existing musical materials, deconstructive “postmodern” techniques I often practice in my own work. Yet, after listening to the entire ballet and Hatzis’ remarks on it, I recognized that these techniques are not just a game of clever cultural critique to be enjoyed for its own sake, but a means towards a greater goal. Hatzis’ ultimate aim in this process is not deconstructive but constructive: by undermining the Western cultural assumptions many Canadians (and Americans) may hold, he opens the possibility for true reconciliation between the Anglo/Euro-Canadian and First Nations cultures through a shared understanding of each other’s experiences.

This theme of reconciliation is most poignantly embodied in the final scene, “Morning Song,” where Hatzis layers musical strands representing the conflicting elements—an eerie pizzicato version of the “Old Hundredth” with electronic sounds in the background, a group of Inuit singing a hymn at an Anglican service, a distorted recording of katajjaq, and the spirited powwow song “Tootsie”—on top of each other with increasing intensity, until finally they are all overwhelmed by a recording of flames licking up wood, as Annie and Gordon burn a model of a residential school on a ceremonial pyre. Out of the cleansing flames, the sound of the Northern Cree Singers emerges a final time with the joyful “Morning Song,” representing a new day of hope for Annie and Gordon. The effect is devastatingly cathartic: like Annie and Gordon, I too am able to let go of some part of my cultural baggage as I seek to compassionately and courageously engage with those different from me.

[1] All quotes from Hatzis in this post are from the following interview with Michael Wolch on Classic 107 radio in Winnipeg:

Sanity vs. Creativity? Robert Schumann Revisited


Sometimes the point of contact between art and life becomes uncomfortably close.

Last summer, I wrote about Robert Schumann and the dichotomy between his two musical alter-egos, exuberant “Florestan” and introspective “Eusebius.” I half-seriously suggested that some composers might benefit from creatively embracing a sort of artistic schizophrenia and simultaneously pursuing radically different trajectories in their work.

The week after I posted that essay, things got a lot more personal. One of the most talented and brilliant musicians I know, capable of learning music with extraordinary facility and interpreting it with rare sensitivity, had been struggling with mental health for some months and experienced another breakdown. While it can be deeply unsettling to see anyone in the thick of a battle with mental illness, it was particularly painful to see one of the persons who matter the very most to me in the world having to deal with it. Doctors eventually reached a diagnosis of bipolar disorder (formerly known as manic-depressive disorder, after the two opposing mental states alternately experienced by those who have it). Wanting to learn more about it, I started reading the book Bipolar Disorder by Francis Mondimore, a psychiatrist at Johns Hopkins University. While scanning through his chapter “Bipolar and Creativity,” I was intrigued to find a discussion of Robert Schumann.

While the exact nature of Schumann’s mental illness is debated, most scholars, including Mondimore, believe he had bipolar. Thanks to the numerous letters, journals, and essays of Robert and his wife Clara, musicologists can reconstruct the trajectory of his illness and his creative work fairly well, revealing marked fluctuations between the wild, uninhibited creativity of the manic phase on one hand and severe depression and near-paralysis on the other. For example, Schumann created dozens of works in the calendar year 1840, including most or all of over 20 (twenty!) song-cycles. In 1844, by contrast, he failed to complete a single work. By 1849, he had resumed his frantic pace of dozens of new works a year. But in 1854, in an apparent attack of severe depression, Schumann attempted suicide and eventually entered a mental institution, where he spent the rest of his life.

This perspective on Schumann’s career, combined with anecdotal evidence of numerous other composers reported to struggle with mental instability (everyone from Beethoven to Rachmaninoff), raises a disturbing question: Do some composers pay for their inspiration in corresponding bouts of depression and mental turmoil? Conversely, are artists blessed with relative stability of mind shut out from reaching these highest levels of creativity and invention, since their highs just aren’t high enough? Are allegedly sane composers like kids on a backyard swing who, even at the apex of their flight, still can’t quite touch that certain tree branch?

As it turns out, other scholars have sought to answer this question. Robert Weisberg has attempted to study the relative quality of Schumann’s output from manic and depressive periods in a somewhat scientific manner. Using the number of existing recordings of a work as a (rather imprecise) proxy for its quality, his research found that while Schumann composed far more works during manic years than depressed ones, he did not appear to compose at a higher level while under mania. In fact, the average popularity (as measured by recordings) of his works was roughly the same for works written in manic years as depressed years. He simply created more “great” works in years when he created more works overall. (Incidentally, my favorite Schumann piece, his A-minor piano concerto, was begun during a period of apparent mental stability in 1841 and completed during another calm year in 1845, after the intervening depression and creative dry spell of 1843-44.)

Thus, Weisberg argues that Schumann’s affect affected (pun intended) not the quality of his work, but the readiness, flow, or even motivation with which he worked. In manic periods, he wrote feverishly, but only some works turned out to be high-quality. In times of depression, he may have had more difficulty in starting to write a piece, but when he did manage to work, his output was a similar mix of the great and merely good. (This is essentially the reverse of the common college student’s dilemma that sleep deprivation increases creative and innovative thinking but decreases motivation to actually do any work…)

Thankfully, then, there can be no Faustian bargain, an artist trading their mental health for uncanny inspiration. To be sure, those who struggle with mental illness cannot be held responsible for their condition anyway. But even if someone were willing to pay the terrible price of violent mood swings, there would be no payoff in creativity.

On the other hand, is the dividing line between luminaries like Schumann, others with bipolar disorder, and allegedly “normal” people really so firm? While mental illness is all too real, one could also see the roller-coaster career of a Robert Schumann as merely a more extreme illustration of the ebb and flow of inspiration experienced by all intelligent and creative personalities. We all go through dry spells where it feels like our work is worthless and we just can’t hit on a good idea—which is when we must cling more firmly to the confidence that our muse has not deserted us entirely, but merely left our side for a moment, and will return soon enough. On the other hand, we also experience euphoric seasons when we are so obsessed with a project that we can hardly seem to finish sketching a good idea before the next one pops into our brain. In such times, we must remind ourselves to eventually take a calmer and more measured look at our work, knowing that everything is likely not as brilliant as it seemed at first.

With both mental health and artistic talent, a neat categorization of humans into “normal” and “abnormal” is deceptively simplistic. We all face the same struggles; some brave souls just have to face them more directly, in both life and art.

Athletes and Artists, Part 3: The Soul of Tempo Practice


I’ve previously written a couple of posts on what musicians can learn from the practices of professional athletes. The first essay explored how the same dynamics that occur between spectators, coaches, and players appear in the music world between listeners, composers, and performers. The second enumerated a few lessons musicians could learn about practicing from phrases a certain professional football team uses to describe their work. This third installment draws from my recent firsthand experience in practicing a sport.

Ironically, my involvement in athletics this year came about due to an injury sustained while practicing music. Last spring, I developed a mild case of tendinitis in my left arm, likely from excess tension during a hard week of preparation for a guitar competition, and had to take several weeks off from playing. With extra time on my hands and favorable weather beckoning outdoors, I decided the thing to do was, quite naturally, run a marathon. (In reality, I had been taking longer and longer jogs over past few years and was waiting to make the leap to an actual long-distance race, but the timing of my injury had something to do with it as well.)

Also ironically, running the Baltimore Marathon this fall gave me the chance to not only compete in an actual spectator sport but also to visit a couple of professional sports venues. The Baltimore Ravens’ stadium was open before the race, being the only place with enough restroom facilities to accommodate thousands of runners, so I hung around in the concourse to stay out of the predawn chill before heading to the starting line. The last few hundred yards of the race also passed through Camden Yards, the nearby home of the Orioles, but by that point I was too exhausted to be more than vaguely aware of the field’s existence.

Once the immediate physical fatigue of running 26.2 miles had dissipated, however, I started to feel a strangely compelling desire to do it again and to learn how I could improve my time in the future. After reading a couple of highly informative books by Hal Higdon, I realized that although my training had certainly increased my fitness and stamina, it had fallen well short of optimizing my potential for improvement. Furthermore, I was falling into exactly the same pitfalls in practicing running as in practicing my instrument. In the rest of this post, I want to show how the principles of training for a race can also apply to learning a piece of music.

Higdon’s training approach rests on systematically alternating different workouts specifically targeted at developing different skills. On some days, athletes will run long distances at a consistent slow pace to gain endurance. On others, they run faster in short bursts to practice speed. On still others, they try to sustain a moderately fast pace for a longer duration to build strength and combine it with speed and endurance. Thus, Higdon’s runners don’t need to worry about how fast they are going on endurance days or how long they can hold out on speed days; the important thing is that each workout accomplishes its specific purpose.

While I had been aware of this principle as I was preparing to run a marathon, I had found it surprisingly hard to put into practice. Most days, I treated my workout as if it were a race and ended up running at the fastest pace I thought I could keep up for the given distance. Naturally, this meant most workouts left me feeling almost completely spent. In addition, having never run a marathon before, I had no concept of what an appropriate pace for that distance would be, nor was I used to running at that pace, since I had mostly practiced running faster than that for shorter distances. Fortunately, I was able to manage my speed reasonably well on race day and avoid a major collapse, but as I staggered away from the finish line, I was left wishing I could have made things easier on myself.

Higdon convinced me that if I wanted to really train well for a race, I would need to run both slower and faster in practice. Slow workouts would need to be not just comfortably slow, but uncomfortably slow (at least until I got used to it), so as to stress my body as little as possible. On designated fast days, on the other hand, I ought to have pushed myself even harder than I did, knowing that I would have plenty of time to recover before attempting another such effort. Previously, I could only manage to change my speed when running with friends whose comfortable pace was either faster or slower than mine, forcing me to adjust in order to stay with them. A true distance runner, however, could determine and execute their proper speed for each training session on their own.

A few days after the marathon, as I was practicing for my first recital since my arm injury, I realized I had fallen into the same mindset in my practicing. Not only had I been treating each workout like a race, I had been treating each practice session like a concert, trying to go at concert tempo with concert-like intensity, both physical and mental. This had no doubt led to over-pressing and straining and contributed to the injury. I realized it would be necessary to separate the speed, intensity, and thoroughness aspects of my practice in order to prepare optimally for a concert.

To concentrate on each physical and musical gesture I intend to execute in performance, it is necessary to play at well under performance tempo. Trying to go faster before the piece is fully performance-ready just leads to crossed signals in your neuromuscular system, increasing the potential for injury. On the other hand, you can’t play fast without ever practicing fast, so some speedwork is necessary as well, but it needs to be coupled with lightness, perhaps even softness, freed from the weight and tension of everything else you intend to do with the piece. On days when I do seek to combine speed and intensity under performance-like conditions, it would be healthy to end my practice early, sacrificing quantity for quality to avoid injury.  Finally, on days when I want to cover lots of music thoroughly, I need to allow myself ample time to take breaks and stay relaxed so that tension does not build up over a long practice session. By combining these various “workouts” into a regular weekly rotation, I can ensure that I develop each piece sufficiently without overextending myself physically.

For all the physical and mental effort required to prepare for a long-distance race or a musical performance, both endeavors provide valuable practice in paying attention to your body and concentrating on the task at hand. Last week, I was spending time with family on the afternoon before the concert. Things took longer than planned, and suddenly I realized I had barely an hour to finish my mug of hot chocolate, travel home (a distance of three miles, with no transportation arranged), change into concert attire, warm up, and set up the video camera before the concert. I calmly took the last few sugary sips of energy, excused myself, and started down the street on foot. After telling my legs to settle into an easy jog, I tried to focus on—and even enjoy—the rhythm of my heart rate and breathing and the feeling of the breeze on my face. I arrived home, barely winded, and went about my normal pre-concert routine. Far from being distracted by the stress of the evening, I felt more relaxed than I ever have for a recital.

Having a challenging goal for which to train forces you to practice with conscious and intentional focus, but the reward of this ability to focus and be present in the moment is beautiful, both in running and art. Just as the musician who lacks intention in practicing has much in common with the runner who lacks intention in training, so also the soul of the distance runner is closely akin to that of the true artistic performer.

Improvisation in Stockhausen’s Solo

Years ago I wrote a paper on a piece by Stockhausen called Solo. The paper itself was long and boring, so I’ll spare you a reproduction of it here. I recently suffered through a rereading of it and discovered that there are some interesting thoughts in it about improvisation which I do find worthwhile to explore a bit. One of the most interesting things about Solo is the methodology of improvisation that it asks the player to use, which I believe is a very rare kind of improvisation.

It’s a bit difficult to describe Solo briefly since it is such a complex work. Solo is an electroacoustic work for a single player and feedback delay. The delay times are much longer than those that we usually associate with delay as an effect, which tend to have delay times in milliseconds. Rather, the delay in Solo uses times in multiple seconds, so whole or multiple phrases could be repeated by the delay after the performer has played them.


The notation consists of six form schemes and six pages of notated music. An example of a page of notation is shown above, and a form scheme is shown below. The player is instructed to letter the pages of notation A-F and place them in order. Since the lettering is left up to the player, the order of the pages ends up being more or less arbitrary. Stockhausen then refers the player to different divisions of the material on each page. Specifically, pages, systems, parts, and elements. Pages and systems have the same definitions that they would in other notated music. Stockhausen defines a “part” as any group of notes contained within a pair of bar lines. This is not called a “bar” or a “measure” simply because the printed music contains both proportional and mensural notation. An “element” is any single normally printed note, any grace note by itself, any group of grace notes, or any single grace note and its associated normally printed note.


The form schemes represent the way in which the player will interpret the notated music. For a performance, only one form scheme is selected to be played. Each of the form schemes are broken into smaller sections made up of cycles and periods. A cycle is the group of periods between two letters as determined in the form scheme. Each form scheme has six cycles which are lettered to correspond generally to the similarly lettered page of notation. So, cycle A is the first cycle of periods on all of the form schemes and generally will contain material from page A of the notation. Periods are smaller groupings within cycles which have time values in seconds assigned to them based on the delay time of the electronics for the corresponding cycle. So, as we can see in the image taken from form scheme II below, in cycle A, there are nine periods of twelve seconds each. Within cycle B there are seven periods of twenty-four seconds each, and so on.

FS topFS top2

A performance of Solo is never a “start at measure one and play to the end” kind of endeavor. Rather, the player is at liberty to select portions of each page to play in a given cycle. Below each cycle there is a group of symbols that tells the player relatively loosely how they should perform the music for that cycle. Stockhausen calls these “what,” “where,” and “how” symbols. A “what” symbol tells a player what size of gesture they should select (systems, parts or elements); a “where” symbol tells a player from where they should select these gestures (from the current page, the current and the following page, the current and the previous page, or all three); a “how” symbol tells the player how the gestures they select should relate to each other (different, the same, or opposite). The criteria for the how gesture is up to the player. So, the player might decide that the how symbol relates to pitch. In this case, the “same” symbol would indicate that the gestures within a cycle should all have more or less the same pitch range.
Two additional symbols indicate the length of time a player may pause between periods, and how the player should attempt to relate to the electronics part within a cycle.

The image below is from cycle B of form scheme V. These particular symbols indicate that, within this cycle, the player must draw musical material made up of parts, from pages A, B, and C, which are either the same or different, with medium pauses following each part, and entrances staggered so as to create a polyphonic texture with the electronics.


So, in actual performance, the player might play this part from page B 1, then this one from page C 2, this from A 3, this from B 4,and so on until they had played a 45 second period from the cycle. Then the player can take a medium pause before they continue the same process again, trying to create a polyphonic texture as the electronics play back what they played from the previous period.

Whew! Remember when I said it was difficult to describe this piece simply? There’s actually quite a bit more to the performance of the piece (for example, we haven’t really discussed the electronics at all!), but I think that’s all you’ll need to know for now.

Solo represents an excellent example of what I would call “composed improvisation.” The term itself seems like an oxymoron, but the concept is actually much more common than one might think. For example, virtually all ‘traditional’ jazz is composed improvisation. Jazz players are generally given, or have learned, some kind of chart or lead sheet which contains the chord changes and melody of a piece, and then improvise based on that information.


In fact, it’s fairly common for this same kind of controlled improvisation based on notation to occur in contemporary classical music as well. What I have seen most commonly, and have used the most in my own music, is a section wherein only pitches are notated and everything else is left to the player to decide. An example from my music is shown below. Note that the given pitches can be used in any order, in any octave, with any rhythm, dynamic, articulation and so on.


These are by no means the only ways that notated improvisation can occur. There are probably as many different ways to utilize these kinds of ideas as there are composers using them. But Solo is actually an example of something very rare in the world of composed improvisation. To work out what that is, we have to take a quick step back.

Music is fundamentally organized into a series of impulses. A note begins on an impulse. That note can be combined with other notes into a larger phrase, which has its own larger impulse. That phrase is then grouped with other phrases to form a section, which has its own, still larger impulse. Sections can be grouped into a large form which we might call a movement, or a complete work, each of which also has its own much larger impulse. Sometimes people refer to this concept of grouping things into larger and larger impulses as “the big beats” of music. I’m deliberately avoiding the word “beat” here because it can be misleading.

This concept is actually alluded to in a Ted talk by Benjamin Zander, which you can watch below, and is more scientifically stated by Stockhausen himself in an essay which appears in Perspectives on Contemporary Music Theory edited by Benjamin Boretz and Edward T. Cone.

Composed improvisation can generally be organized into three levels based on with what level of impulses the player is being allowed to improvise and what levels of impulse have been predetermined. In the first level, the form and the phrases are both predetermined, but the specific notes which are played are up to the performer. In the second level, the form and the specific notes are determined, but the phrases which are constructed out of those notes are up to the performer. In the final level, specific notes and phrases are determined, but the form of the piece is left to the performer.

So, the two forms of composed improvisation that we have discussed thus far are both level-one improvisation. Consider jazz improvisation: the form of the piece and the phrase structure are already given based on the notation within the chart, but exactly which notes are played when is up to the player to decide. Specific notes are undetermined, but the larger impulses are predetermined.

An example of third-level improvisation would be the “open form” music found in some of the works of Pierre Boulez is an example of this as are numerous works by Stockhusen (Zyklus, and Licht, for example). In this kind of improvisation, while entire sections of notes and phrases are specifically notated, the order in which those sections occur is determined by the performers.

Solo is a rare example of level-two improvisation in which specific notes and gestures are determined, as is the overarching form, but the way those notes and gestures organize to make phrases is left to the player. I have not yet encountered another piece of composed improvised music that contains large-scale, level-two improvisation, even among Stockhousen’s works. What’s more, the understanding by the performer that this work functions as level-two improvisation is absolutely imperative to a particular performance faithfully representing Stockhausen’s intentions for Solo.

For those interested in hearing Solohere is a recording of me and horn player Briay Condit playing this piece.

The fact that this work is, as far as I am aware, unique in the world of improvised music makes it more meaningful to the cannon, and likely explains why the work is so notationally involved and difficult for performers to meaningfully understand. And, frankly, this only begins to deal with the things about this work that are fascinating and misunderstood, which probably explains why my previous paper was so long and boring… perhaps more on this another day.

For more from Stephen Bailey, you can visit his website here.

The Gift of Immediacy: A Meditation on Being Late for a Concert


Andrew Wyeth – The Carry

Me senté
en un claro del tiempo.
era un remanso
de silencio,
de un blanco silencio…
I sat down
In a space of time
It was a backwater
of silence,
of white silence…

Claro de reloj (Pause of the clock), Federico García Lorca, trans. Stanley Read

Actually, I stood up – at the back of the King Center concert hall with two of my friends, because we had arrived late. As the Lorca lyrics of Morton Lauridsen’s Cuatro Canciones wafted to us in a shimmer of vaguely Messiaen-ish harmonies and Crumb-ish timbre-textures, it was a backwater of crystalline sound – an unexpected music. The usual ritual of sitting down, clapping, and program reading foregone, we had walked in at the start of the Playground Ensemble’s October 26th, 2015 performance of this movement as though it had always been happening in that space. We had entered with no idea of who we were hearing, or of what; immediately, our empty hands had been filled with the molten, colored jewels that adorned that white silence.

One of the gifts of lateness and of not having sufficient time for anything (once you let go of the stress and the self-condemnation, that is) is immediacy. Immediacy is the elusive treasure of the 21st century, arriving secretly and remaining for a time veiled and useless to the possessor behind daily layers of panic and dissatisfaction. If those layers are peeled away, immediacy is revealed as the resolve to jump in and do what can be done now without fear; to let go of unhelpful expectations and worries that get in the way of now; to listen to intuition, allowing an experience or an atmosphere to have free reign in your consciousness without your own interference; to capture the absolute essence of something without trying, painting a truth in the broadest possible strokes; to engage in listening and conversation without the background noise of ego and preconceived notions. Immediacy is the sensory experience of a child – all eyes and ears and uninhibited fingers that reach without hesitation for the crayon.

Actually, come to think of it, we did sit down – once the Lauridsen piece was over and the stage was being reset. But for me, at least, the immediate hearing remained – that coming in out of the cold and dark to meet unknown sounds without context or expectation. I looked with only half an eye at my program, not wishing to spoil the feeling, and I half-learned that Louis Andriessen’s Workers Union was for “any group of loud-sounding instruments.” From the stage, one of the performers explained that Andriessen’s notation only specified rhythm and contour – not exact pitch. Then the framework that is Workers Union began to unfold, and I recognized again the gift of immediacy, remembering a quote by Andrew Wyeth: “That’s why I like fencing so much…it’s very much like painting. It’s that decisive, sharp, quick stroke that captures the essence of a subject.” I could hear how Andriessen captured the essential vision in the broadest strokes, and how the performers seized it, bringing their communication, their letting go, and their commitment to the immediate interpretation of those strokes.

When Workers Union came to an end, a conspicuously immediate conductor (viz., clothed in a tattered ball cap, unsuitable pants, sweatshirt, and well-worn shoes) took the stage and began to direct the Playground’s closing soundpainting. I’ve heard many soundpaintings before, but none as fresh, as energized, or as seemingly-composed-yet-also-seemingly-improvised as this one. A construction of sound emerged with flawless logic but the unmistakable torn edges of the immediate vision. I heard sounds I wanted to hang onto and dwell with for a while, letting the immediate experience continue on without me…But still immediacy held me in its grip, embodied in the hyper-alert musicians and their conductor. Together, with effortlessness and razor focus, they animated the living, growing organism of structured sound.

Actually – now that I think of it – we were neither sitting down nor standing up when the first movement of the Lauridsen began. We were hovering in the foyer, our own backwater of silence, because Claro de reloj was already underway, and the ushers were softly preparing to open the doors for us between movements. “When you go in, try to grab a seat at the back, or just stand until the piece is over,” they said, and handed us our programs. They might as easily have said, here, you lucky latecomers; take a double portion of the gift others left behind –

anillo formidable
donde los luceros
chocaban con los doce flotantes
numeros negros.
a formidable ring
wherein the stars
collided with the twelve floating
black numerals.

Yes, you missed the first piece; you are tired, you are late, you are burned out, and you have no good ideas left.

But your inheritance is immediacy.

The Power of Recurrence: Further Thoughts on Form


I recently had the pleasure of seeing a live performance of Mario Davidovsky’s Synchronisms No. 10 for guitar and tape. Davidovsky is an Argentine-born composer who has spent most of his career in the US, especially at Columbia and Harvard universities. As with much American music from the more “academic” strain (Davidovsky’s biggest mentor was Milton Babbitt), Synchronisms No. 10 does not follow any traditional form. Instead, the piece appears to be through-composed, with a number of distinct sections following organically upon each other, creating an interesting and colorful variety of sound worlds. Somewhat surprisingly, the piece begins with several minutes of solo guitar before the electronic part enters. However, near the end of the piece, the guitar’s opening gestures recur exactly as at the beginning, but with an electronic accompaniment this time. As I listened to the performance, the obvious recurrence of this passage gave the whole a much more defined shape in my mind, causing me to smile and nod in approval almost involuntarily. Suddenly, it seemed as if I liked the piece a whole lot more, even though it had done nothing new.

Even though Davidovsky studiously avoided using any classical forms, I realized that this recurrence of the opening material was actually functioning in a way analogous to a recapitulation in traditional form, even apart from the return to a home tonality which is traditionally associated with it. This suggested to me that perhaps the main purpose of traditional musical forms such as sonata and rondo is not to provide a tonal structure, but simply a framework for recurrence. In a piece of any substantial length, some element of recurrence is necessary to create a satisfying listening experience, whether the language is tonal or atonal. In fact, I would argue that the longer a piece is, the more essential repetition or recurrence is to maintaining a coherent construction of form.

Similarly, in the visual arts, the larger a work’s physical dimensions, the more important its form or composition is. The painter, potter, sculptor, or architect constructs these forms out of elements dealing with the distribution of materials across space, such as shape, color, balance, and proportion. However, while a work of visual art can be grasped instantaneously, in a single glance, a work of music must be experienced through time. Therefore, its structure must be articulated through elements dealing with the disposition of materials across time, such as repetition, variation, recurrence, expansion, or contrast.

Because of this principle, I would argue that truly through-composed music (that is, forms relying exclusively on variation or contrast instead of repetition or recurrence) can only work on small scales. One significant exception to this might be so-called process music, in which certain musical parameters follow a clearly-defined trajectory over the course of the piece, so that the character of the music is constantly in flux and thus never literally repeating. These large-scale trajectories provide a way for the listener to conceptualize the entire piece in a single glance, so to speak, without needing to recognize material they heard earlier. Even so, most examples of process pieces use either repetition or recurrence as well to help construct the form. Composers may even construct processes that undo or spiral back upon themselves, so that the end of the piece is the same as the beginning—a sort of terminal recurrence that signals the piece’s completion. (For a brilliant example of process music, see Thomas Adès’ In Seven Days.)

In an earlier post, I reflected on how minimalist art showed me that the ideal balance between repetition and variation in a work often tilts much more towards repetition than I think. After my experience listening to the Davidovsky, I now wonder if this principle applies to all musical styles, not just minimalism. For example, one of the most stimulating experiences I’ve had as a composer was taking a seminar in Schenkerian analysis, a music theory paradigm which attempts to show that tonal music uses the same basic patterns at all levels of its structure, from phrases to sections to entire pieces. As a theorist, I don’t necessarily buy all the assertions of Schenkerian philosophy, but as a composer, it opened my eyes to the potential to expand any musical idea without adding any new material, by simply replicating the pattern of the whole in each of the parts, much like a fractal.

To take a completely opposite example, serial music also relies heavily on repetitions of a basic tone row, albeit transformed through processes such as retrograde and inversion (not to mention extreme contrasts in rhythm, timbre, or texture). While serial music is notoriously difficult for listeners to comprehend, I wonder if this is not due to its lack of tonality but rather to the fact that the repetition and recurrence in its structure are not apparent to listeners, having been buried by the radical variation of other musical parameters. The same sort of structure is still there, but it fails to create a sense of cohesion for listeners if they are unable to perceive it.

In my opinion, the difficulty for composers in writing long pieces is not in coming up with enough ideas to fill the piece, but in stretching out a single idea to fill the appropriate amount of time, like blowing up a balloon or throwing a pot on the wheel. Much as novice potters tend to leave the walls of their pots too thick because they don’t realize how far they can stretch the clay to enclose a larger volume, aspiring composers tend to leave their musical materials underdeveloped, moving on from an idea before it has grown to its full potential.

So the next time I’m stuck searching for inspiration in a piece, I intend to check what I’ve already written and consider if it might just be time for some repetition, or at least a little more stretching of an idea. After all, if you never pop a balloon, you’re not blowing them up big enough, right?