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.

Luciano Berio, Rendering

by Nathan Cornelius

Most classical musicians know Franz Schubert as the author of nine symphonies, one famously left unfinished, and Luciano Berio as the author of fourteen incredibly difficult solo pieces entitled Sequenza. Less known is the fact that Schubert also left sketches for a tenth symphony unfinished at his death (as opposed to his eighth, which he simply abandoned for other projects), or that in the 1980s Berio orchestrated these fragments, assembled them into a continuous piece, and published the result as Rendering.

Berio was no stranger to inserting bits of canonical works into his own music; in the third movement of his Sinfonia, for example, he has vocal soloists singing and speaking a collage of absurdist texts over a complete performance over the corresponding movement from Mahler’s “Resurrection” symphony. But the treatment of old and new music in Rendering tends toward juxtaposition rather than overlapping, alternating between passages of Schubert’s music, scored for standard late-classical orchestra, and eerie, dense webs of sound-mass by Berio featuring numerous divisis and a prominent celesta part. Berio describes them as “a kind of connective tissue which is constantly different and changing, always pianissimo and distant,…performed quasi senza suono and without expression.”

These interstitial passages have a gauzy, colorless effect, both timbrally and harmonically: by having almost the entire orchestra playing, but extremely softly, Berio dilutes the vibrant colors of Schubert’s orchestra. Likewise, his static harmonies serve not so much to negate Schubert’s bold harmonic progressions as to freeze them in a sort of suspended animation until the next fragment can pick them up. In addition, the distinctive timbre of the celesta, so anachronistic to Schubert’s sound-world, clearly announces the beginning of each Berio interpolation, making the structure of the work audible on a very basic level, without even requiring harmonic or formal analysis on the part of the listener.

And this is probably for the better, as any listener expecting a sonata-allegro form in the first movement would be deeply confused when what seems to be the beginning of the recapitulation launches into a rapid coda and then abruptly ends! It is unclear whether Schubert simply had not written out the recapitulation or whether he actually intended to use such an unconventional structure. Similarly, the third movement as it stands combines elements of the Classical scherzo and finale tropes, a move which Berio appreciates as forward-looking. Indeed, Berio’s interest in the work itself seems to be primarily historical, seeing it as an interesting (and sadly, a final) stage in Schubert’s evolution as a composer.

On another level, Schubert’s sketches, reproduced on a separate staff in Berio’s score, provide a fascinating window into his compositional process: we see the composer hastily writing out a short score with only melody and bass lines for the entire first movement. Schubert apparently wished to strengthen his counterpoint skills and was working his way through counterpoint exercises in the last weeks of his life. Thus, Berio’s second movement opens with an orchestration of a two-voice canon found on the same page of Schubert’s manuscript, which gradually morphs into the paired melody and countermelody of the second movement. Then Schubert puts his learning into practice in the third movement, writing several boisterous fugato passages.

Yet perhaps the most fascinating aspect of Rendering is how it problematizes the issue of its own authorship. Clearly, the majority of the musical content is either Schubert’s own or Berio’s pitch-perfect imitation of him. Nevertheless, the expressive meaning of the piece as whole derives from the fact that Schubert’s music is broken up and interspersed with bits that sound utterly modern. This is neither a transcription nor a paraphrase nor a scholarly completion, and simply attributing the authorship to “Schubert – Berio” as the published score does seems to obscure more than it reveals about the piece. Instead, Berio has resurrected a not-quite-dead work to create something which is neither old nor new, a uncanny yet strangely attractive musical zombie inhabiting its own time, its own context, and (for now at least…) its own genre.

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.

“Classical” music: Ah, you’re Indians!

Dinner parties with strangers are notoriously dangerous ground for me, and, I think, for most composers. Inevitably, as the group deals with the appropriate small talk, someone asks “what kind of music do you write?” This question seems innocuous to them; they really only mean it as a way of getting to know me better. They really don’t understand how difficult something like that is to answer. When answering that question, one has to judge not only how much or how little that person knows about music in general, but also how much or how little they actually want to learn about MY music.

My answer should probably be something like this: “I write texture-based chamber, choral, band, and orchestral music that often equally integrates both electronic instruments and acoustic instruments and which is informed by all of the compositional techniques and languages from the last century; the goal of which is to capture a moment, express an idea or emotion, and generally to cause an audience member or listener to have an experience of some kind.”

But that’s a lot.

Maybe I’m underestimating the strangers with whom I attend dinner parties, but I’ve always assumed that’s more than someone wants to hear as an answer to that question. My real answer is this: “I write avant-garde classical music.” It’s short, it’s to the point, and it does, in some way, actually give a person an idea of what my music is like. Moreover, it leaves some openness for more questioning, if someone is actually interested in going down that rabbit hole with me.

Some people would have a problem with my usage of the term “classical” to describe my music. The technical definition of “classical music” is music that was written in Western Europe from about 1750-1850. That’s not my music. In fact, that’s not anyone’s music that has been alive for the last 150 years. But this means that there are several generations of composers who have no words to describe their music. The music that we write isn’t pop music, it isn’t jazz, it’s not rock, and if it isn’t “classical,” then what the hell is it? How should we describe it to potential listeners? What can we say that will give them some idea of what we do and also allow them the option of learning more without feeling intellectually alienated by an incomprehensible stream of music-specific terminology?

Several terms have been proposed or used over the years in an effort to remedy this situation. Some call this music “art music,” some “serious music,” even “legitimate music.” The rather offensive implication of these terms is that other genres are “not art,” “not serious,” or “not legitimate.” Some call it “concert music,” which, of course, absurdly means that no other music has ever or will ever be performed in a concert. “Orchestral music” is an attractive candidate, but implies a specific ensemble and excludes others. Can one really say that a piece written for string quartet is “orchestral?” Furthermore, the term “orchestral” tells us very little about what the music sounds like. Composers like Philip Glass and Arnold Schoenberg have both written for, recorded with, and performed with orchestras, but so have Ray Charles and Metallica.

The two most recent candidate terms that I have seen are “notated music” and “composed music.” These two terms came to me via blogs that were mentioned to me by colleagues. They certainly seem attractive at first, but I believe that, just like all the other terms mentioned above, neither actually does an effective job of telling us about the music they are attempting to describe.

“Composed music” comes from music journalist and radio producer Craig Havighurst. You can read his blog on the subject here. “Notated music” ultimately comes from Steve Reich, but is brought up again by Ethan Hein whose blog you should read here.

For those of you who are too lazy to do that (no judgement), here’s the abridged version: Havighurst likes “composed music” because it venerates the composer again. He says it implies music that comes from “a singular mind, fixed and promulgated in written form” as well as a particular restraint and “composure” that is expected of us when we listen to this music. Hein, whose blog is actually an excellent critique of Havighurst’s term, points out the reek of exclusionist privilege that permeates Havighurst’s concept of “composed” music. He also draws attention to the fact that, really, all music is composed in one way or another. Lastly, Hein proposes Reich’s “notated music” as an alternative. There’s actually a lot more to be said here, but it’s not entirely pertinent to this particular conversation, so it will have to wait until another time.

The creators behind these two terms are forgetting, or perhaps ignoring, two extremely important things about genre terminology. The first really has to do with the nature of language. Language is a means of expressing or describing something in the absence of that thing. In other words, the only reason that we use the word “chair” is because at some point in time someone had to refer to a chair without being able to point to one and say “this.” The word “chair” creates in us a series of definitions that we understand about chairs. Probably “a place for sitting” is number one on that list for most of us. But those definitions aren’t inherent to the word itself; they had to be taught to us over time. This is why if I say “chair” to someone who doesn’t speak English, it doesn’t mean anything to them, and similarly why if I say “get off the chair” to my cat, he does absolutely nothing.

This same concept should be applied to genre terminology. We create words to define the differences between different kinds of music. But the terms we create only have meaning if there is a common understanding of their definition. “Composed music” is meaningless to the layperson; as is “notated music.” If I have to explain the definition of the terminology I’m using then I’m back to square one. Why would I waste time doing that, when I could just as easily actually explain my music itself to them? In fact, the only people to whom “classical music” is not an effective descriptor are those with enough musical knowledge that other preexisting musical terminology, like “minimalist” or “post-serial,” is already meaningful and serves as a better descriptor.  These are academic words that only academics are arguing over.

To the layperson, the word “classical” doesn’t mean “music written by Western European men between 1750 and 1850.” It means “music typically composed for acoustic instruments from the orchestral families and/or voices and performed in a particular kind of concert setting.” The proof of this is the fact that the vast majority of people consider contemporary film scores to be “classical” music. Frankly, that description is pretty close to what I do. Adding the words “chamber,” or “electroacoustic,” or “avant-garde” gets the definition close enough that someone will actually know what I’m describing to them and that’s the only point of having words to explain genre.

The second point that those focused on creating new terms for music are forgetting is a product of the first. It is this: we don’t actually get to decide what our music is called. Debussy famously railed against the idea that his music would be classified as “impressionism,” yet every music history textbook that I have ever seen places him in that movement. In fact, John Adams, Arnold Schoenberg and Steve Reich have all attempted to reject the genre labels that have ended up being applied to them. Yet three quick searches for these composers’ names on iTunes reveal this gem:
UntitledIt’s probably also worth mentioning that Josquin Des Prez, and Gerard Grisey both come up under this same genre in iTunes.

Louis CK makes this point well as he discusses how white people ruined America.

CK’s remark, “ah! You’re Indians!” has come to be my mantra when discussing new terminology for “classical” music. No matter what terms we invent to try and better define what we do, people are still going to call it classical music. People aren’t concerned with the start and end dates of a particular aesthetic movement when they ask what kind of music you write. To correct them about their terminology, or to try and teach them some new definition, is fundamentally disrespectful to the fact that someone just expressed an interest in what you do! If we ever want to make our music relevant to the world at large we need to meet people where they are by describing what we do in ways that actually mean something to them. We have enough battles to fight as living composers without fighting people about the name they call our music.

I don’t care if people call it classical music, as long as they call it something.

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

The Need for Feedback

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Thomas Eakins, Singing a Pathetic Song, 1881, oil on canvas, Corcoran Collection, National Gallery of Art

When I was a guitar student in college, I always practiced in the same room, facing the same direction. It almost became a second home for me—one of my friends eventually posted a sign with my name on the door. But when I had to leave these friendly confines to go perform in an unfamiliar hall, I always felt I sounded worse. Then I would start to make more mistakes while worrying about what had happened to my sound. Eventually I realized I wasn’t actually playing badly; my ears were just getting different resonance than they were used to from the room I usually played in. To cure myself of this perception, I set a goal to branch out and practice in spaces with the least reverb I could possibly find. I played outside on the patio, where the noise of a passing car could almost drown out my guitar. I found a space in the old cafeteria with a tiled wall facing up at a 45-degree angle and played into it so that all my sound would be reflected up into the atrium and not back at me. Eventually I just got comfortable that I didn’t sound like my usual self in a new hall.

Singers experience this same dynamic, as they often feel as if the sound echoing back to them physically helps to support their own vocal production. When my college choir went on tour, singing in a different venue every night, our director would always warn us about the acoustics of each new space. So it didn’t catch us off guard when we sounded so much richer in a traditional Scandinavian-style church with an all-wooden interior than in a low, flat auditorium converted from an old K-Mart. Then there was the musty old church in Muskegon that mysteriously amplified frequencies about two octaves below middle C, much to the delight of the bass section. If anything, it created a sort of feedback loop, as we growled away with even more gusto, knowing that our low notes were going to be heard.

It’s hard to perform well if the only evidence you have for whether anyone can hear you is whether you can hear yourself. Much of the pleasure of performing comes from hearing your own sound reflected back to you from the hall. My current school is spending over a million dollars to have a top acoustical designer revamp the interior of their main concert hall, not primarily to improve the audience experience, but to make it easier for performers onstage to hear what they’re doing. The reverberation from the hall reassures the performer that their sound really is traveling out into the world and not just vanishing into a void.

Composers need to hear the reverberations of their work too. The echoes that come back to us from the audience reassure us that our work is real and actually affecting the world. Milton Babbitt said he didn’t care if anyone listened, but I suspect he was, if being honest, clearly in the minority. Most composers will go crazy trying to persuade their friends to go out into the forest so that, when their tree falls, there is actually someone there to hear it. One snowy evening, a piece I had written played to an audience numbering exactly seven; the performance felt surreal, like it didn’t really happen. In order for our artistic endeavor to seem validated, there have to be people who hear and react to it, whether with pleasure, criticism, or simply acknowledgement. This is what drives me, in my weaker moments, to obsessively check the number of Facebook likes and YouTube views my recordings have accumulated. It reassures me that my work has become a part, however small, of someone’s life.

But these “echoes” can only come from individuals. Sometimes I run into trouble listening for them from things that aren’t people. A couple of years ago, I had a rather strange conversation about one of my pieces with a composer I respect. It ended with the person warning me, “You wouldn’t want them to think you’re one of those Kentucky people!” At that time, I recognized the falseness of the assumptions  that I would be mistaken for a “Kentucky person” (whatever that is), that this would necessarily be a bad thing, and that, even if it was, it wouldn’t be worth it. However, I failed to notice the more pernicious assumption hidden beneath them all, namely that the success or failure of my work depends on the evaluation of “them.” For the next year or so, concern for what “they”  would think I was—if not a Kentucky person, then what?—haunted and ultimately hobbled my work. For all my trouble, “they” never sent any echoes back my way, so I never knew if I was pleasing “them.”

I eventually decided I didn’t want to write for “them,” for some nebulous evaluating entity lurking out there in the music world. I want to write music to be heard, music for listeners, individuals who hear a piece and respond to it as it moves them personally. Trying to create work to receive a favorable impression with “them” will lead to artistic cramping and ultimately paralysis. “They” will tell you not to take risks, or at least to never, ever fail when you do. “They” judge you on your originality and forbid borrowing even the slightest bit of inspiration from others. “They” would rather you left your beliefs, memories, and personal quirks behind when you compose.

But listeners don’t mind. Most listeners would actually rather hear there’s a story behind the music. Listeners aren’t picky, simply asking for music that sounds good, nothing more. Listeners can show you grace and look past the occasional flaw in your work. After all, listeners are human themselves. “They” aren’t.

Composers: Selfish, Subversive, or Socialistic (or Plagiarist)

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In a previous post, I distinguished between the qualities needed to be a good composer versus a great one. “Good” composers, as I defined them, not only have the technical ability to write music but also are able to launch their music out into the world and connect it to listeners. They must have the dedication and doggedness to stick with a project they believe in through the inevitable adversity and criticism. They also have the personal charisma and persuasion to get other people excited enough about their music to want to put on a performance, as well as the organizational abilities to make sure the production runs smoothly. Lastly, there has to be the vision and initiative to create new platforms and opportunities to present music, lest traditional venues never open up.

But this post isn’t about how composers can make their music succeed. It isn’t necessarily even about music. It’s about the role—the responsibility, even—of artists in society, and the choice of various ends to which they can apply these so-called career skills. And it’s about the transformation that has occurred in my own imagination as I’ve realized that my vision of how I’d use what I learned in my composition degree was painfully small and narrow.

So imagine, if you will, a composer who is quintessentially “good,” having all the tools to ensure her music gets heard. This composer capitalizes on her abilities to promote her music and succeeds in presenting it to a wide audience. She builds a portfolio, organizes a concert, advertises on social media, speaks brilliantly about her work, maybe even records an album. You might call this exemplar of industrious self-promotion, following the path of countless figures from music history, the selfish composer. There is potentially negative connotation here: whether the composer consciously intends it or not, there is always the potential for a bit of a personality cult, since the music’s popularity is, to an extent, based on the reputation of the composer herself, symbolized by glamorous headshots, glowing reviews, and pithy artist statements. If her music is good, presumably audiences will enjoy it and appreciate her effort, although it may not transform their lives unless it is also “great” (in the sense of my earlier post).

Now consider another composer who takes all the same actions to present her music to the public, but with one difference: she writes under a pseudonym and champions her work disguised as someone else’s. This evasion of the culturally embedded link between an artistic creation and the identity of the creator makes this artist a bit of a subversive composer. The subversive composer works just as hard as the self-promoting one—after all, she still has the same natural interest in seeing her music succeed—but forgoes receiving any of the credit. Her portrait does not grace the album cover of the recording, and the performers do not acknowledge her from the stage by shading their eyes from the floodlights. However, if the music is, like Romeo’s rose, just as beautiful regardless of the name attached to it, both the selfish and subsersive composers will make a comparable contribution to the artworld. While the audience might miss having a living, breathing connection to the genesis of the music in front of them, they may also be able to perceive the work more clearly without the distraction of the composer’s personality popping up before their eyes.

(Composers might have various motivations for writing pseudonymously. German guitarist Tilman Hoppstock recently attributed some of his compositions, written in Romantic style, to the nonexistent 19th-century composers Franz Werthmüller and Allan Willcocks, believing no one would take his music seriously if they knew it was a 21st-century anachronism. Eventually, the ruse came to light when he attempted to publish biographical articles of his alter-egos in scholarly journals, drawing sharp criticism that he had crossed a line of academic integrity. On a smaller scale, I know a composer who contemplated having an ensemble he played in read his latest piece with his name removed so that he could simply hear his colleagues’ honest, unfiltered reaction to his work.)

But if composers can do just as much good for the artworld with or without their name attached to their work, why need they limit themselves to disseminating work that actually is their own? A good composer would also be capable of advocating for worthy works by other composers who are unable to promote it themselves. (For instance, the original composer may be dead, or convinced their music is awful and doesn’t deserve to be heard, or simply lacking the administrative skills to organize a successful performance.) A composer could choose to leverage her marketing and persuasive abilities to benefit society by bringing listeners the best music possible, irrespective of who wrote it. Rather than seeking to maximize her individual investment of effort in her own product, this almost socialistic composer shares her talents for the common good. If she has the dedication and selflessness to advocate for others’ music just as passionately as their own, the results can be equally powerful—or even more so, if she finds a previously undiscovered “great” composer to champion and bring to light. And if I, as a composer, find myself unable to speak as wholeheartedly on behalf of others as I do for myself (assuming our work is of comparable quality), then maybe it’s time to take a look at my motives for engaging in this business in the first place.

To put it neatly, the selfish composer promotes her own work as her own, the subversive composer promotes her own work as if it were another’s, and the socialistic composer promotes someone else’s work as someone else’s. The fourth option in this logical matrix would essentially be plagiarism—promoting someone else’s work as your own. While, thankfully, I don’t know of any composers with the audacity to attempt this, I would reiterate that the benefit accrued to society from a great artwork is (or should be) independent of the name attached to it. Of course, the effects of a legal battle between composers over authorship of a work would certainly be deleterious to the artworld!

What this thought experiment taught me, then, is that an artist’s mission is not ultimately to promote their own work, but rather to benefit their communities they inhabit. These communities include both other artists seeking an arena to share their musical talents and the art-loving neighbors who come to enjoy their creations. The composer, thanks to her musical talent and professional training, has the resources to invest in, enrich, and expand these circles of musicians and music lovers for the greater good of the community, whether “professional” musicians or “amateur” audiences.

One contemporary artist who embodies this vision is Claire Chase, founder of International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE), a flexible, iconoclastic, and brilliant ensemble based in Chicago and New York. I recently had the privilege of listening to her talk as she described her work with ICE in terms of integrating artistic, educational, and social innovation. She says her primary motivation for starting ICE, now a multimillion-dollar organization, was just to provide a venue in which her musical friends could share their unique contributions: “It was never my intention to make a living from it. I wanted very much to do what I loved, and I also wanted for the people that I loved to be able to do what they loved. The living part came later.” May such a magnanimous attitude towards our talents, both musical and entrepreneurial, pervade us all.

Claude Vivier, Lonely Child

by Nathan Cornelius

The history of Western music has largely been defined by methods of combining contrasting voices, with distinct rhythms and melodies, into a harmonious whole. From medieval motets to Renaissance counterpoint to Baroque fugue, all the way up to 20th-century “micropolyphony,” composers have developed intricate systems of composition and notation to regulate this complex relationship of parts. However, Canadian composer Claude Vivier negates the central thrust of this 800-year tradition in his masterpiece Lonely Child for soprano and orchestra.

Lonely Child was commissioned by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 1980. Vivier never heard the piece performed live, as he moved to France the following year and, tragically, was murdered in Paris in 1983. The text by Vivier himself, alternating between French and an imaginary nonsense language, is a lullaby comforting a sad child with fantastic visions of fairies, magicians, and stars. Vivier grew up in an orphanage and never knew his biological parents, and the text is often considered a depiction of his own childhood.

After an introduction featuring a sparse string melody interrupted by strokes on the bass drum and rin (a Japanese percussion instrument vaguely resembling a gong), the soprano enters with the text, accompanied by sustained notes from the full orchestra, moving in exact rhythmic unison with the voice. However, the texture continues to be sparse, as nearly all the instruments are concentrated on either the soprano note or one other lower part (which takes the place, if not the function, of a bass line). The lone exception is the first violins, who softly play hazy clusters in a very high register, appearing like a glassy sheen on the soprano’s vocal timbre.

In fact, these violin notes, as Bob Gilmore has shown, bear a precise mathematical relationship to the two principal voices.[1] Vivier generates them by repeatedly adding the frequency of the “bass” note to that of the soprano, as if they originated from electronic interference between the two notes. For example, the soprano’s first note is A440 (the A above middle C, having a frequency of 440 Hz), while the lower voice plays the G just over an octave lower (196 Hz). The violin notes above this approximately frequencies of 636, 832, 1028, 1224, and 1420 Hz (440 + 196 + 196 +196 +196 +196), forming a dense stack of notes. Played by itself, this cluster would sound noticeably out-of-tune, but in this context it blends seamlessly into the two lower notes. Vivier creates similar harmonies above each pair of soprano and bass notes for the entire melody, as it gradually ascends higher and higher.

With this innovative and boldly simple structure, Vivier has done away with the traditional musical elements of harmony and texture and absorbed them into a single element: timbre. (Timbre is often referred to in layman’s terms as “tone color,” and Vivier himself called these chords les couleurs.) The texture is such an extreme of homophony that it ceases to be noticeable as a texture at all. Meanwhile, the piece does not have harmony in the traditional sense, since there are only two main notes sounding at a time, but each simultaneity has a unique overlay of violin notes that impart to it a distinctive color. As a result, the dominant perceptual element of the piece is a series of shifting timbres generated by the relationship between the melody and its supporting voice.

Although Vivier is mentioned far less than his friends Gérard Grisey and Tristan Murail as an influence on the “spectralist” movement in 20th-century music, works like Lonely Child come as close as any to fulfilling the ideals of the movement. The spectralist composers conceived of music along a set of continua, such as pitch to rhythm, or harmony to timbre, and sought to show how these apparently distinct musical elements were actually two forms of the same entity, in a sort of musical theory of relativity. Vivier’s Lonely Child is a nobly elegant embodiment of that idea, but more than that, a deeply poignant and sensuously beautiful work of art.

[1] Bob Gilmore, “On Claude Vivier’s Lonely Child,” Tempo 61 (239), 2-17.

Is New Music Possible?

Chord Catalogue

by Nathan Cornelius

In one of history’s intriguing meetings of creative minds, Ralph Vaughan Williams studied composition for a time with Maurice Ravel. On one occasion the French master, surprised to discover his student writing sketches for a piece at his desk away from the piano, supposedly blurted out, “But how can you find new chords without a piano?”[1] Ravel apparently saw his compositional process as one of discovering hitherto unknown sonorities by trial and error at the keyboard. Indeed, the tropes of composer as groundbreaking scientist or composer as voyaging explorer are prevalent throughout music history, with harmony the main continent to be explored.

This, of course, assumes that there really are new chords to find that have not been used before. But it’s a bit disturbing for a composer intent on harmonic originality to discover a piece like Tom Johnson’s The Chord Catalogue: all of the 8178 chords possible in one octave, which systematically and exhaustively lists all possible combinations of notes.[2] (And this is not merely an abstract exercise in music theory: it has actually been performed in a ten-hour “marathon solo recital.”[3]) To return to the exploring metaphor, such a piece is the equivalent of Columbus landing in America and not only encountering the Indians already there but being presented with a detailed map of the entire Western Hemisphere.

Besides science and exploration, many composers turn to theological or transcendental accounts of their creativity. In fact, the trope of the artist as divine creator, or at least demiurge, is one of the most deeply embedded in all of Western culture. Like God, literally speaking (or, in some traditions, singing) his sonic creatures into being, the composer creates a whole new world out of air, which is pretty much as close as you can get to nothing. As your own blogger wrote 7 years ago,  “Music, even more than other creative arts, comes as close as possible to God’s mode of creation—ex nihilo, out of nothing.  When a composer invents a tune out of his or her head, he or she has given birth to something that did not exist before in any form or in anyone else’s mind and is not a copy of any other creator’s work.” While my sanguine high-school self may have overstated the case a bit, the idea that creative originality should be valued because it most nearly approaches divine creativity is common in the artworld.

But the theological ground for artistic originality is problematic too. As Paul Griffiths argues in his brilliant philosophical essay, Intellectual Appetite, if the entire cosmos is a creation of God, no human creator can claim original authorship of either a sensory object (the physical sound of the music) or an intellectual idea (the score in a conceptual sense), “because anything that can be known by any one of us is already known to God and has been given to us as unmerited gift.”[4] Thus, Griffiths argues, it is not really accurate to say artists create ex nihilo: “our makings, unlike God’s act of creation, require something we have not made that we can work on. There will always be something about our makings independent of and prior to our work of shaping and forming, something that therefore does not bear our style-signature.”[5]

Furthermore, composers are indebted not only to their Creator but to their predecessors: “Anyone who speaks or writes now swims, knowingly or not, in an ocean of words already spoken or written.”[6] One could equally well speak of an ocean of tones, and there is no composer who has never tasted even a sip from it. Thus, “there are no absolutely new things, no novelties in the strict and full sense, nothing completely unprecedented. Anything completely new in this sense would, by definition, have nothing in common with anything that preceded it.”[7] While Griffiths is referring to novelty in an absolute philosophical sense, in practice a piece of music is only intelligible to its listeners to the extent that it shares qualities in common with music they have heard before. A work of absolute novelty and complete innovation would, if it existed, risk utter incomprehension and thus jeopardize its very status as an artwork.

Finally, Griffiths suggests that artworks can (and should) possess beauty completely independent of their purported originality, saying, “progress and novelty are of no particular interest to the studious; truth and beauty are.”[8] But why then do we experience such powerful fascination and palpable delight in the presence of a new artwork? This desire and delight may certainly be corrupted by fads, trends, and self-reinforcing avant-gardisms, but it seems to persist in its pure form even if the aesthetic appetite is disinterested and free (or as close as one can get) of such distractions.  How then can we offer a satisfactory account of composers’ desire to create new kinds of works? Furthermore, we intuitively believe there really is something new under the sun. Is artistic innovation then merely an ontological fraud?

The solution, I think, lies at the border between creativity and epistemology. For Griffiths, “acts of knowing are in a limited sense creative acts. They make actual a good that without them was only potential: the dual good of your knowing something you can know, and of something’s being known as it is by one who can so know it.”[9] But one could also turn this statement around and say that creative acts are really acts of knowing, when the human creator first becomes aware that a particular arrangement of sound in time is not only possible but delightful, and then actualizes it in a sensible form, whether through the activity of marks on a staff, vibrations in the air, or merely neurons in her brain.

The world is pregnant with infinite numbers of potential arrangements, like an extension of Johnson’s chord catalogue to all possible aesthetic qualities beyond pitch, with all the permutations these entail. All of these potentials are eternally present in the mind of God, who wrote them into being in the act of defining the physical laws of sound. Thus, the composer’s work is not to bring music into being out of nothing, but to notice, select and present beautiful, even meaningful, arrangements of these potentialities. She is less like the sculptor building up a form out of clay (although even that artist has a raw material with which to start) and more like Michelangelo seeing the form locked within the block of marble and carving away the excess to make it visible. For the composer who has recognized this, as Annie Dillard puts it, “the writing has changed, in your hands, and in a twinkling, from an expression of your notions to an epistemological tool,”[10] revealing what was there in the world all along but has only now revealed itself to your ears, and through them to others’.

[1] Nicholas Cook, Music: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 68.

[2] Set theory aficionados might prefer to cite the 220 unique set-classes as defined by Forte, while composers fond of overtone spectra might argue that chords genuinely sound different spread over many octaves rather than compressed within one, but these are merely quantitative differences. Johnson could easily respond with another catalog to those specifications if he wished.

[3] The increasing despair of the woman in the third row of the audience as she slowly realizes what she’s in for is positively hilarious.

[4] Paul Griffiths, Intellectual Appetite: A Theological Grammar (Washington: Catholic University of America Press, 2009), 22.

[5] Griffiths, 71.

[6] Griffiths, 167.

[7] Griffiths, 205.

[8] Griffiths, 202.

[9] Griffiths, 132-133.

[10] Annie Dillard, The Writing Life (New York: HarperCollins, 1989), 3.