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!

Conclusions
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.

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

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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.

Sanity vs. Creativity? Robert Schumann Revisited

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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

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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.

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

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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

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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?

Intimate Conversations: Thoughts on Loretta Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD and Stephen Bailey’s Love Story

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A few months ago I had the privilege of hearing Denver composer Loretta Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD performed by the Playground Ensemble at Regis University. As I sat in the concert hall and watched the composer approach the podium – about to deliver a prepared talk as a preface to a panel discussion of postpartum obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) – I had my doubts about the appropriateness of conducting a mental health discussion in a concert setting. A few minutes later, however, I was fully engaged, listening to Notareschi and the other women on the panel share their stories of struggle with postpartum mood disorders, and eventual healing with the proper support. Much to my surprise, I was in no hurry for this personal storytelling to end and the music to begin. Yet, when the music did begin, it felt like an organic continuation of the stories I had just heard, a way for my intuitive brain to engage with the information about postpartum OCD that my intellectual brain had just acquired. It was a poignant experience that challenged all my previous notions of what music is and how it functions; Notareschi’s quartet – presented in the context of this postpartum mental health event – demonstrated that a piece of music can function as a vehicle for conversation, creating a safe space in which listeners can grapple with concrete ideas. This realization raised a number of questions for me about the writing of socially conscious music, or music that involves personal storytelling.

 Just a week after the Notareschi concert, I heard Nebula Ensemble premiere a new electroacoustic work by my colleague Stephen Bailey called Love Story, created in close collaboration with soprano Emily Gradowski. Like Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD, Love Story addresses a serious issue that affects many women in our culture and does so by telling a deeply personal story while inviting listeners to construct their own stories. The storytelling and the music are fully integrated in Love Story, as the pre-recorded voice of Gradowski poses several personal questions to the audience, and then answers a few of the more difficult questions, constructing a truthful narrative that reveals the body image and self-confidence struggles affecting an overwhelming number of women in our society. As the story unfolds in the electronic element, the acoustic instruments help to create an emotional environment for that story, a space in which the audience can ponder the questions Gradowski and Bailey pose, and contemplate Gradowski’s answers as well as their own (unspoken) answers.

Several weeks before the premiere of Bailey’s work, and shortly before hearing Notareschi’s String Quartet OCD, I had an email conversation with Bailey about his goals in the creation of Love Story. Bailey expressed the opinion that music must be allowed to tell these kinds of intensely personal stories in order to be relevant in today’s culture. In his view, then, the benefits of writing this type of socially conscious music  – music that strives to inform and provoke an audience to wrestle with a particular issue through the sharing of a personal narrative – outweigh the potential risks. I agreed with this view; an important lesson I learned during my time as a creative writing major was that the telling of stories that seemed weird or extremely personal to me would always earn peer comments along the lines of “I totally know what you mean,” whereas any deliberate attempt on my part to write something with “broader appeal” would leave my readers cold and indifferent. It’s a lovely paradox: the more particular and personal the story, the more universal it actually is.

This conversation with Bailey was in my mind during the performance of Notareschi’s work. Prior to the performance, Notareschi explained that one audience member at a previous performance of the work had confessed to initially “hating” and “judging” the composer as she spoke about her personal struggle with postpartum OCD, and then “loving” the composer – in other words, being reconciled to the personal story and gaining a better understanding of it – after hearing the music. Clearly, if a composer chooses to make difficult personal disclosures through a piece of music, there is always the risk that listeners will find this off-putting. For that matter, a listener’s preconceived negative idea of a composer’s personality could lead them to judge the music unfavorably before they even hear it. That Notareschi was able to win this audience member over through her music is a testimony to her compositional skill and judgement; the risk was mitigated by the high quality of Notareschi’s music and its ability to serve as a compelling and comprehensible emotional context for her personal story.

It isn’t difficult to find less successful examples of this type of personal storytelling through music. For instance, I once heard a microtonal “protest” piece (written for a specially constructed electric guitar with quarter-tone frets) that told the story of the composer’s unfair arrest and time in jail during the 1970s. At the conclusion of the performance, I overheard another audience member – who had found the piece painfully long and grating on the ears – comment that they wished the composer had remained in jail to prevent him from writing the piece. If the composer’s intent was to illustrate his experience and protest his incarceration by plunging the listener in the same monotonous suffering he endured, then he succeeded. If his intent was to raise awareness about unfair arrests and gain sympathy for other individuals in his position, however, his musical efforts failed to reach his audience. The audience as a whole remained unmoved by his story, and several audience members made unflattering jokes about the piece during intermission; sadly, the audience member who wished the composer had remained incarcerated was not the only person I overheard expressing such sentiments.

So, I suppose the takeaway for me is that a successful effort to write socially conscious/deeply personal music of this type must achieve two things: the telling of a personal story with profound honesty and humility (hubris must be left outside the door), and the creation of a high-quality musical representation of (or context for) the story that a listener can readily connect to. The composer who chooses to write music of this type undertakes a far more difficult task than the composer who writes “absolute” music, or the composer who is inspired by less intensely personal ideas related to nature, art, or spirituality. Notareschi’s and Bailey’s efforts in this arena are exciting to me because of the hyperengaging cognitive-emotional experience they created for me as an audience member, vastly different from the usual experience of hearing new music. Let us hope that they and other composers will continue to make successful experiments in this genre.

Schizophrenia and Schumann: The Possibility of a Split Musical Personality

by Nathan Cornelius

In one of my favorite books on music, Harald Krebs’ Fantasy Pieces, the composers Florestan, Eusebius, and Meister Raro meet at a café to talk music. Each orders a coffee and a slice of Schwarzwalderkirschtorte and proceeds to offer a brilliantly perspicacious analysis of each other’s works. When Chiarina tells them to go home, one of them pays the bill and is surprised to find the total comes to exactly one-third of what he had calculated. Of course, Florestan, Eusebius, and Meister Raro are all pseudonyms of one composer, Robert Schumann, representing different sides of his musical personality. As the book progresses, Schumann’s alter-egos become increasingly disjointed and their discussions increasingly far-fetched, discussing music written several decades after their lifetime. Eventually, even Chiarina (Robert’s wife, the pianist and composer Clara Schumann) becomes unable to keep them under control, and the book ends with Florestan and Eusebius in Dr. Richarz’s insane asylum, composing versified modernist music analyses whose form mirrors their content.

While Krebs’ book is overall a whimsical send-up of Schumann’s own literary conceits, it also raises some substantial psychological questions. We know for a fact that Schumann did ascribe different sections of his compositions to the pseudonyms Florestan and Eusebius and that his mental health deteriorated in the latter years of his life. It is just conceivable that he might have had what would now be called multiple personality disorder. Perhaps at some point his sense of multiple identities went from just a literary device he occasionally used to an inescapable presence in his life.

When I was a graduate student in composition, my mentors would tell me that school was a good time to branch out and explore many potential styles of writing to see which ones suited me the best. But by the time I became a professional composer, they said, I would have found “my own voice,” a personal style I could call my own. The goal of this process of stylistic exploration was assumed to be the cultivation of a deep and distinctive musical personality which would uniquely mark my work. My teachers often spoke of creating a unified “sound world” for each piece and eventually from one piece to the next, once I had only decided on a direction in which to go.

For my part, I struggled to follow this advice, careening from neo-romanticism to post-serialism to spectralism and back within just two years as a composition major. Whatever direction I pursued in one piece, I would run off and do something completely different in the next. I rationalized my utter lack of continuity as a composer by appealing to my freedom as a student to try different things and see what worked. But deeper down, my aspirations really were somewhat unsettled.

Finally, one of my teachers asked me a simple question that I had never thought to consider: “What kind of music do you actually want to write?” After some reflection on this, two things became clear. First, I had a particular affinity for two very different kinds of music: one sensuous, passionate and sympathetic to tradition, and the other noisy, provocative, and unflinchingly innovative. You might say I have a bit of Florestan and Eusebius inside myself. Second, I was also fascinated with a dialectic between two strongly contrasting kinds of music in uncomfortably close proximity to each other. I remembered my excitement when I first discovered works such as Rochberg’s String Quartet No. 3 or Penderecki’s Symphony No. 2, which alternate between biting dissonance and soothing consonance in a single movement.

The problem with both of these interests is that they violate my teachers’ ideal of a unified compositional voice, almost like intentional musical schizophrenia. Is it even possible for a composer to develop a coherent and persuasive voice in two opposing styles at once? You can’t hike up both sides of a mountain at the same time. Even Schumann’s Florestan and Eusebius differed primarily in emotional affect, not in technique or style, both being emotionally Romantic yet rhythmically and harmonically adventurous. Trying to write both neo-tonal and spectralist music at the same time is a different enterprise altogether.

Yet the state of the music world is also very different today than it was in Schumann’s time. In the past century, all of the Western fine art traditions have become deeply fragmented. No matter how much stylistic unity and economy any one piece or oeuvre may have, you cannot count on any common context within which listeners will perceive it, the way Schumann’s contemporaries would have understood his music in relation to Beethoven, Schubert, and Mendelssohn. As Chaya Czernowin puts it, every piece written today has to first teach its listeners how to understand it in order to actually be understood. While Czernowin prefers to construct her self-defining musical forms in a minimalistic language—and does so with great subtlety and skill—a study in radical contrasts could come across to listeners even more readily.  In this autonomous, anything-goes environment, adherence to any existing compositional tradition no longer provides a significant boost in comprehensibility.

If anything, juxtaposing utterly alien musical characters in the same piece affords the composer a broader expressive palette from which to paint the outlines of a musical form. As soon as a dialectic between opposing kinds of music (tonal/atonal, loud/soft, pure/noisy, etc.) is established, listeners are immediately aware of the symbolic grammar of the piece, even if they may not yet know what the various symbols stand for. By manipulating these musical characters over the course of the piece, the composer performs operations akin to those of symbolic logic, creating a network of meaningful relations which may be understood either in the abstract or as metaphor.

So far this year, I’ve written two main pieces, one of which included my best impersonation of a 19th-century rondo-scherzo and another that started with almost 5 minutes of aleatoric noise. It feels like giving one side of my creative personality an outlet allows me to concentrate on developing the other side for a while without being constantly tempted to look the other way. Still, pursuing two divergent goals at once, whether in the same piece or alternately in different pieces, is risky business. While you may not end up as an insane genius like Schumann, many lesser creators have surely faded into obscurity as the contrasting facets of their work ultimately canceled each other out. But, if realized with conviction and skill, this method of working can potentially offer a powerful tool for communicating within an increasingly fragmented artworld.

The Trouble with Autobiography

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by Nathan Cornelius

One of my biggest motivations for writing music is my desire to express feelings or images I’ve experienced in my life and share them with others. Until recently, I had thought the best way to communicate this to people listening to my music was to include a program note along with it mentioning the events that inspired the piece. Thus, I would write tantalizingly vague statements like, “As I was reminiscing about a conversation I had with some friends years ago…” or “Several years later, I had a dream about that trip, in which the details had been muddled…” However, I’ve begun to question whether this is an effective method of sharing the feelings behind my music with listeners. As I’ve been working this summer on another piece inspired by experiences from my life, I’m trying to think through how—or even whether—to speak about the music’s relationship to those experiences.

Thanks to some thought-provoking discussions in a seminar I attended, I’ve realized that specificity in program notes can actually hinder listeners’ appreciation of the work, in several ways. First of all, what moves us emotionally varies from one individual to another. Explaining the emotional impetus behind a piece could cause listeners to relate to it more closely, or they might be just as likely to dismiss it as quaint or irrelevant. Composers seem to be notoriously bad at predicting which way audiences will react to their disclosures.

More importantly, too much specificity in explaining the music limits the richness of meaning it may take on. While recent musicology has done much valuable work in undermining the intentional fallacy in music, most performers and conductors still seem to assume that the composer’s word is a reliable and complete source for determining the meaning of a piece of music. I don’t deny that the composer’s intentions are relevant to interpreting a piece, but I also believe that, as one of mentors liked to say, “Any great artwork will mean more than the artist could have intended.” Telling the audience in advance what I, the composer, was thinking robs them of the chance to discover their own connections, insights, and reactions to the music, which could ultimately endow it with many more layers of meaning than I initially envisioned.

In addition, many people seem to assume that any piece reflects to some extent the circumstances of the composer’s life or emotions at the time of composition. However, this assumption is simply not justifiable, even if the piece is genuinely autobiographical. Most of my pieces are based on events that happened weeks, months, or even years before I actually sat down to compose the music. The poet Wordsworth famously said that art comes from “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” and “emotion recollected in tranquility,” but I tend to draw on a lot of recollection with little spontaneity. In fact, I believe that the deeper the emotion associated with an event, the longer it takes my mind to process it, and therefore the longer until I am free to draw from it in my creative work. But the time spent ruminating on these experiences, even the unsatisfying or disturbing ones, is a worthwhile investment, since after I have worked through them on a personal level, I can harness them into a powerful impetus for creativity.

Furthermore, what is to stop me from lying to my audience in the program notes? How could they possibly judge whether or not my explanation of the work is true? After all, I was the only person there when I wrote it. Music history is full of instances of composers strategically revising their account of their music’s genesis to tell a more dramatic story to the crowds. While not intending to stoop to such mercenary calculations, I am now more hesitant to simply blurt out the whole truth to the audience, knowing that the more they read into it, the less they can read out of it. So in striving to be authentic as a composer (and as a human being), how do I tell my future listeners something that resonates with what’s in my heart without limiting their freedom to experience the music?

I’ve recently been pondering this question in relation to one of my favorite composers, Gustav Mahler. Mahler prepared elaborate programs for most of his symphonies, complete with titles, subtitles, literary allusions, heroic narratives, and descriptions of nature. However, when the time came for his works to be performed, he didn’t necessarily release these programs to the public, in some cases only divulging them privately in letters to friends. In other cases, he was somewhat indecisive, premiering a work without a program and then adding one later, or publishing a program only to withdraw it. Much ink has been subsequently spilled over relating these programmatic narratives to the events of Mahler’s life, and scholars have identified purported programs for each of the symphonies in Mahler’s correspondence. These associated tropes, such as “the hero’s funeral,” “the three blows of fate,” “the farewell to life,” etc., are well known to Mahler aficionados today.

The moral of the story seems to advise composers to be circumspect in writing about their own music. If anyone still cares enough about your work to be reading about it in 50 or 100 years, anything you write about it can and will be found out. Every word you speak instantly escapes out into the world as from Pandora’s box, impossible to recapture. Even if you only disclose the secret meaning of a piece to your closest friend, and that person keeps it in confidence, you can be sure that after you are dead, future scholars (or ravenous program writers) will rifle through your letters and emails for any clues they can find. As the line from the musical Hamilton goes, “History has its eyes on you… You can’t control who tells your story.” While I hope I’m not as consumed with my own legacy as the character Hamilton is, I don’t want to prevent future listeners from enjoying my music for its own sake by saying something stupid about it now.

Thus, I’ve decided to stop going into much autobiographical detail in describing my music. I now write my program notes with an aim to stimulating listeners’ own emotions rather than fixating them onto specific ones of mine. In particular, I try to reserve first-person pronouns for basic facts of when and how I wrote the piece. For hinting at deeper questions like what the piece is “about,” I prefer to address the audience in the second person or just to leave pronouns out of it altogether and try to paint a picture without explicitly telling anyone to look at it. In fact, giving audiences images or impressions (in the sense of Monet or Debussy) as a point of departure seems more helpful than talking about my compositional techniques (which needlessly abstract things) or mentioning the allusions or influences I draw from (which are necessarily specific and therefore narrow the range of meaning).

I still intend to write music that comes from the deepest parts of who I am; I’m not sure I can do otherwise. But the music also needs space to speak for itself; after all, it can’t do otherwise either. I just have to learn how to not drown it out with my own babbling.

Minimalism and Meaning: Lessons from the Art Gallery

by Nathan Cornelius

This week, I took advantage of a free afternoon in Washington to visit a couple of museums for the first time, and I felt several of the artworks spoke to my own process and philosophy as a composer of music. Here are three brief reflections on what I learned:

First, I visited the Phillips Collection, famous for its Rothko Room, with four large works by the great modernist painter. The first thing you notice about a piece by Rothko is its relative lack of content, not so much its abstraction per se but its openness, sparseness, and diffusion of visual information. Instead of filling the canvas with some variety and number of images (whether abstract or representational), Rothko deals with large, soft-edged blocks of subtly shaded color. The obvious response to a skeptic of this sort of art to say that Rothko’s work bears more than meets the eye. And this is indeed true: sitting in front of one panel for several minutes, I became increasingly attuned to the nuances of color, texture, and shading within each large shape. Much like the music of Helmut Lachenmann or Chaya Czernowin, Rothko’s paintings force the beholder to deconstruct their default habits of consuming art and learn instead to slow down and look (or listen) more deeply.

However, this fact by itself does not differentiate a Rothko work from any other great painting. In the best representational art, there is more than meets the eye as well, and a closer look permits appreciation of the work on a deeper level beyond “what it’s a painting of.” Of particular interest to me are artists like Monet, who can be enjoyed as an Impressionist, painting water lilies, or as a proto-Abstract Expressionist, painting swirls and daubs of color. The situation is similar in music: “modernist” styles allow composers to focus on elements of music such as timbre, rhythm, or dynamics that have been traditionally been neglected in favor of pitch. But all these elements still pertain to, and can be used expressively in, tonal music as well. The only limiting factor is the composer’s own breadth of imagination.

But breadth of imagination can be both a blessing and curse, as I realized at my next stop, the impressive exhibition called “Wonder” at the Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Here, I was first drawn to a very different sort of minimalist art in Patrick Dougherty’s installation Shindig, a series of curvaceous structures woven out of willow branches, like giant birdhouses, big enough to hold three or four people. What struck me about the installation was that, despite its massive scale, it consisted entirely of a single material, built up into multiple similar forms. On the spectrum of unity and variety, Dougherty tips the balance strongly toward unity.

For some reason, this seems to go against my usual way of thinking about musical form. If, as Mahler said, a symphony ought to contain the whole world, then conversely, a miniature ought to display the greatest simplicity and economy of means. In general, we are taught that as the scope of the work increases, the diversity of materials included should increase along with it. But here was a work on a massive scale, crafted with utter simplicity and repetition. I realize its counterpart would have to be a miniature collage, like the synthetic cubist sculptures of Picasso or Braque: a work that has one of everything, but never two.

I began to wonder if perhaps my striving for variety in my own music was actually superfluous and distracting from its larger structure. Perhaps I would be better off working with the same ideas for longer spans of time and not abandoning them in fear of boring my listeners. After all, even Mahler repeated the expositions in his symphonies, distorting them just slightly the second time. This also reminds me of a recent concert at which I heard minimalist composer John Adams conduct his majestic Harmonielehre, a symphony in all but name, in which he constructs large-scale musical spans out of numerous repetitions of a few ideas, with only the subtlest variation.

Finally, Janet Echelman‘s giant installation 1.8, based on the 2011 Japan tsunami, is also on display at the Renwick. Named for the 1.8 milliseconds by which the massive earthquake sped up the Earth’s rotation, the design of the work is based on a USGS map of wave heights in the Pacific in the aftermath. A wavelike constellation of mesh forms hangs from the ceiling like an inverted contour map, illuminating by gradually changing lights matching the colors of the map’s legend. The floor of the gallery is carpeted, and viewers are invited to lie down and contemplate the shapes from below.

Since my recent work has been exploring musical translations of shapes from graphs and maps, I was especially intrigued by this piece. The cartographer’s choice to depict a natural disaster with a color-coded map is fundamental to the existence of Echelman’s artwork, and a different style of map (say, using arrows instead of colors to depict the path of the waves) would have led to a completely different work. If in modern art, the form has essentially become the content, then when art imitates a functional or informative object, that object’s format or notation predetermines the meaning of the artwork. Similarly, the conventions of music notation and the choices composers make in creating alternative notation styles determine the expressive possibilities which can be notated in that medium. Therefore, composers seeking to break the bounds of traditional music notation should carefully consider the final effects they wish to achieve before even deciding how to notate the piece.