Outsourcing the Overture

There’s a trend that continues to thrive in today’s visual arts world, and though it had some legs in music composition in the 1950s and 60s, it now seems downright unfashionable: Bluntly put, it’s called outsourcing the grunt work. It’s really not that uncommon to find artists who never lift a paintbrush, like Jeff Koons who employs a team of artisans to execute his oversized canvases and tchotchkes. Composers, on the other hand, seem to be involving themselves more than ever in the process of creating and producing work. Note the rise of the composer-performer paradigm over the past couple decades. I’m wondering if the new music scene has some kind of collective control issue?

It’s time to let go, people. Loosen those collars and write a nonsensical graphic score. Give it to your favorite musician to interpret, don’t intervene, and see what happens. Okay, you don’t have to go that far if you’re not game, but I do wonder why passing the workload to the performer went by the wayside. Was it all just a phase, or are there still folks out there creating ambiguously notated pieces that are open to interpretation? I’ve definitely done my fair share of pieces in this vein, and my interest has been piqued by the work of Andre Vida, but there’s got to be more of you out there putting your trust in the players, right? Give us a shout-out, and let us know about your work.

22 thoughts on “Outsourcing the Overture

  1. Herb Levy

    A more accurate analogy to the situation in the visual art world that you refer to would be to farm out orchestration, copying scores and extraction of parts, developing custom software/patches/code and/or hardware, etc.

    Oh, wait a minute, there are composers who already do that.

    Reply
  2. coreydargel

    I’m not sure the metaphor holds up once the graphic score comes up. Artists like Jeff Koons and Sol LeWitt write instructions that are meticulous and very controlling, not at all like the kind of graphic score I think you’re suggesting.

    Besides, there’s nothing wrong with being a control freak. Just ask my kept boy, SlavĂ©!

    Reply
  3. rtanaka

    Note that the composer-performer paradigm was almost always part of western music’s history. (Heard of the pianist-conductor?) Prior to the Modern era the idea that a composer would not be able to play an instrument was almost unheard of. Jazz and most world musics have never abandoned the relationship, and continues to do so in practice. It’s really only classical music which has made the composer-performer separation, and particularly musics written under high-modernist ideologies. You will usually never see anybody claim that music is somehow meaningless…it’s only an opinion that exists in new music mediums. Phil asked a very good question — what is gained by this point of view?

    I’m skeptical of graphical scores and conceptual works because it puts too much burden of meaning on the performer and audience. Now some people will argue that this is a way for the composer to release themselves from their ego or something, but since the composer unabashedly clings onto the composer -> performer -> audience heirarchy, this particular argument doesn’t really hold much water. It’s definitely not a absolution of power, only responsibility, with the composer shamelessly taking credit for the efforts of others.

    I don’t find graphic scores really being all that “non-sensical” to begin with — its a very calculated method for the composer to exploit the system for personal benefit. Very cynical. But professional performers will play just about anything if you pay them enough, so if you’re going to write in that kind of style I hope you have a lot of money sitting around. Also, this makes the performer very cynical.

    Performers play from notation to get themselves out of themselves. It’s the transcendental aspect of classical music that makes it so powerful, which a lot of composers will probably never understand unless they actually do it themselves. So I see it as the job of the composer to give the performers somewhere to go, as if it were a map of some sort. If the score is just to get the musician to do what they would’ve done anyway, then I question what the composer’s name is doing there, taking credit for the performance to begin with. In this regards, improvisation is more consistent with its ideologies, which is why its making a comeback at the moment.

    For myself, the composer-performer thing arose out of pure necessity. Now that I’m out of school I’ll be lucky to get maybe 3 or 4 performances of my works per year in terms of composition, but since I’m able to improvise I’m able to do 2 or 3 shows a month or participate in various projects. After deciding to focus on improvisation, my resume grew very huge in a very short amount of time.

    Reply
  4. Chris Becker

    “Performers play from notation to get themselves out of themselves.”

    First, I agree with Herb and Corey that Randy is writing about two separate things.

    Ryan – I think there’s merit to a lot of what you’re saying. However, I myself work with many musicians who are great players and improvisers but who do not necessarily sight-read. And my own music relies heavily on specific musicians and the unique sounds and concepts they bring to a performance – not their sight reading skills. I often don’t notate anything but instead rely on written directions, cues and rehearsal discussions. A lot of what we do CAN’T be notated. And happily the experience for the musicians (unless they’re lying to me…) in performances has always been a positive one.

    THAT said, I realize I’m not the typical NMBx composer who does in fact work with notation and more classically trained ensembles. The way I work (which, I think is a method Randy is advocating – although I’m not sure…) is a personal creative decision – I don’t hold it up as a model for others to follow. So there’s room here on this thread for MANY other points of view…

    Reply
  5. Matthew

    All in the same boat
    I’m skeptical of graphical scores and conceptual works because it puts too much burden of meaning on the performer and audience.

    Every score is a graphical score; every work is a conceptual work. Just because more people agree on how to interpret traditional notation doesn’t shrink the substantial distance between score and sound, and just because a work’s concept isn’t front-and-center doesn’t mean there isn’t a conceptual framework. And the interpretation of “meaning” is only a burden if your ideal performing/listening experience is one of total passivity.

    So it’s really just a matter of degrees. If the composer’s framework is unusually open-ended, so what? S/he is still providing the framework for the musical experience, which, at its core, is what composition is all about, isn’t it? What’s cynical about that? This idea that a graphical composer shouldn’t claim credit because s/he didn’t work hard enough seems awfully petty to me. Besides, last time I checked, composers and performers were both listed in the program.

    One more thing: enough with this urban myth about these hordes of modernist composers who don’t know how to play an instrument. I’ve racked my brains, and I can’t think of one composer who doesn’t have some proficiency on some instrument. (There may be a couple out there I’ve missed, but they’re in a small, small minority.) Just because they don’t do it in public for money doesn’t mean they don’t know how to do it.

    Reply
  6. rtanaka

    Sure, we all come from different backgrounds and of course its going to shape the way we approach things. Main thing, again, is to be honest with everyone of what you’re trying to do. I like Jeff Koon’s work because while his approach relies heavily on business and marketing, because he doesn’t try to hide the fact from the audience it provides a commentary on the state of society and art world today. In a lot of ways, its a satire on conceptual and abstract art using its own methodolgies. Very ironic, considering that the ideology emerges from an anti-commercial attitude.

    Improvisation — It’s Nature and Practice by Derek Bailey, something everyone who’s interested in improv should read. An interesting thing to point out is that improvisers tend to see notation as a form of a map…a journey loosely outlined for the benefit of the performers, while classical composers (especially 20th century onward) tend to treat notation as if it were an object to be rendered. The whole “removing the composer” idea is really only tounge-and-cheek unless the musicians make an actual effort in changing the actual approach.

    Look at pop groups and jazz groups for instance — many of them are known under their group name, and their individual names are subordinate to that. That’s one way to remove the composer, for sure. Or how about writing pieces anonymously, with no names attached? So now I do both composition and improvised performances…I used to do an Earle Brown thing where I included improvised sections in my works but I abandoned it because I felt it would be disrespectful toward the performer. If my name is going to be on it, I feel that it should reflect and obvious amount of effort and a clear necessity for the composer to be there. If not, I’ll just take my name off the piece and improvise with myself or others as a collective effort. I would rather have the process be fair.

    In the visual arts this is not a problem, because there is no performance or “rendition” of the visual work. It is what it is, and it exists for its own sake. I think this is why the visual arts have, for some time now, been more successful than music.

    Reply
  7. rtanaka

    And the interpretation of “meaning” is only a burden if your ideal performing/listening experience is one of total passivity.

    Now I run into this argument all the time, where people will accuse the listener/performer/critic of “not trying hard enough” when they don’t get it, or they don’t find anything meaningful. They tell me to listen to it over and over and over, as if I had all day to do so, while refusing to clarify their points or intensions on the matter. But to focus the topic a little bit, we’re talking about Randy’s previous post where he said it’s possible to find meaning where there is none. There’s another name for this phenomenon — it’s called a placebo.

    If you read the previous Earle Brown interview, you’ll probably see that he mentioned that Cage and Feldman largely played piano, a very soloistic instrument…and it seems that there was a definite lack of ensemble experience among those two composers, which lead to some problems during some rehearsals. Yes, of course most composers play an instrument. Well enough to understand the process of practice, rehearsal, performance, and the mindset of a serious performer, though? That’s what I have my doubts about, and some of the testimonies here on this site is not very encouraging either, to be honest.

    Reply
  8. Chris Becker

    Ryan, I would think a performer such as yourself who reads music and is comfortable improvising might welcome the opportunity to play something that combines the two (and would not feel as if they were being cheated out of some sort of credit for the end result).

    Reply
  9. rtanaka

    Ryan, I would think a performer such as yourself who reads music and is comfortable improvising might welcome the opportunity to play something that combines the two (and would not feel as if they were being cheated out of some sort of credit for the end result).

    I don’t have a problem with it, it’s just a personal decision. Jazz combos do it all the time. As long as the involved parties agree under certain terms, then there should be no problem. There would be no need for rules if the musicians are able to trust each other, and that’s basically what I do with the trio we play in. There is no composer, no score. Sometimes we come up with very loose structures to work by (slow then fast, start in this key then go wherever, quasi-ABA form, etc.) but in these contexts I do not feel comfortable slapping my name on the performance and call it a piece of mine. Basically it’s a group effort — compensation and credit should be adequately reflect the contribution of the parties involved.

    Now there’s a place for conceptual works, as I’ve said a number of times before. But in my experience the integrity of the process tends to fall apart soon as you try to pass it onto other players because of the lack of specific instruction. Of course the audience has no idea what’s on the score so they just assume that the composer wrote whatever came out of the process, even if they didn’t write anything. I had to play works where the instruction was as generic as “think of a bird, then play a sound” or something. I mean stuff like that is so vague, you don’t really need to be a skeptic to start wondering why the composer is there to begin with.

    Of course, like someone above said, it’s a spectrum of sorts between being specific and being interpretive. But, there is an agreed upon syntax in Western notation that certain symbols mean certain things, so that might be one way gauge which way your work might border on. But I think, in the vast majority of cases, one can just look at it and see whether or not there was a substantial investment in the acoustical aspects of these kinds of works. Common sense does tend to prevail in a lot of cases.

    In general, I think an artwork’s success can be measured by whether or not it reflects the intention of the artist. Artists who think conceptually often tend to dislike talking about intention (and there are a number of them here, obviously) because they feel that the goal of music, for them, is to absolve the composer’s intention from the process. But non-intention is also an intention, and for reasons mentioned above, I don’t think that conceptual works really manages to fulfill this goal. (Of course, it makes it ripe for satire for artists such as Koons.)

    Also, say that if you are talking to someone who has poor English skills and is trying to communicate something to you. Does intention matter? Of course it does, and sometimes you have to pry yourself away from the superficialities of sounds and words in order to get to the heart of what they are trying to convey. When people say they are absolving intention, a lot of the times they are using that ideology as an excuse to distance themselves from what others are trying to tell them, often at a desperate attempt to retain their own subjective interpretation of the world. Instead of hearing the meaning of the other party, they construe their gestures and actions to mean whatever they want it to mean, rather than the reality of what actually exists.

    Subjectivity is something that arises naturally out of human errors in perception and memory, but it in itself is not a virtue. What pushes society forward are truths, resolutions, and agreements — things that are mutually beneficial for the parties involved, and things that involved actual, honest, substantial discussions about real-life matters. It’s not particularly all that difficult to be “subjective”, because even if you try to be clear as possible, subjectivity still exists. So its really not all that interesting to make subjectivity an end-goal in itself.

    Reply
  10. pgblu

    Subjectivity is something that arises naturally out of human errors in perception and memory, but it in itself is not a virtue. What pushes society forward are truths, resolutions, and agreements — things that are mutually beneficial for the parties involved, and things that involved actual, honest, substantial discussions about real-life matters. It’s not particularly all that difficult to be “subjective”, because even if you try to be clear as possible, subjectivity still exists. So its really not all that interesting to make subjectivity an end-goal in itself.

    This is all a bit fatuous. Please name a piece of music for me that expresses a truth, establishes a resolution, or arrives at an agreement! Is that really what music is for, to you? On the other hand, do composers really sit down and say to themselves “I am now going to undertake something subjective” ? I find that hard to imagine (Subjectivity is in the nature of the beast, I’m afraid). Even if that were possible, I’d much rather experience the fruits of a subjective search for musical truth than anyone’s effort to state an objective one.

    Reply
  11. rtanaka

    Even if that were possible, I’d much rather experience the fruits of a subjective search for musical truth than anyone’s effort to state an objective one.

    I think this gets to the crux of where most of our disagreements lie — do you think that objectivity is even possible? Not just in music, but in general, in life?

    It’s rather good timing because I just finished jury duty this week and I think my experience has proven to be relevant. There was a dispute between the testimony of the plaintiff and the defendant on the date of which the accident occurred. Plaintiff claims it was Sunday, defendant claims it was Saturday. So do we say that because our perspectives are subjective, that both testimonies are true, even though they contradict each other? Common sense will say no, which means that someone must be lying, or had a relapse in memory. It’s also possible that both of them are wrong. But what’s obviously not possible is that they are both correct simultaneously, because the information they provide contradicts each other on such an obvious level.

    So some composers will adhere militantly to the idea of pure subjectivity, a world where there is many worlds that exist simultaneously but independent from each other, expanding infinitely. But I disagree — there is only one world, but with differing interpretations of it. To me, artworks are at its best when they tell us something about life that we never thought of before, of give us another way to look at things which we are already doing. This is how art manages to point out certain “truths” (no matter how big or small) and what enriches people’s lives.

    So what’s subjective is one’s perspective and experiences of the world, not the world itself. Is this limiting? No, because every person’s trajectory in life is unique in some way, even though as a collective we might share the usage of certain paths. By revealing something about themselves and their relation to society in their work, artists are able to contribute something.

    Yes, there is such thing as causality — what happened in the past inevitably affects us in the present and in the future. This is not “subjective”. Sorry to say, sometimes it doesn’t matter what you think or prefer. Facts are facts.

    Reply
  12. rtanaka

    Please name a piece of music for me that expresses a truth, establishes a resolution, or arrives at an agreement!

    There’s really too much examples to list here. Orchestral music in general is symbolic of a type of parliament, with each instrumental groups representing part of society. Ives – String Quartet No. 2, well, more arguing than agreeing, but nonetheless there are moments of cooperation between each player who represents certain people he encountered throughout his life. Carter also borrowed this approach in his musics as well. Free improvisations also start with disagreements and is often very murky and disjunct, but the reason why people do it is to “arrive” at those moments of cooperation where things just seem to lock together.

    Also, I know I posted this quote before, but Bartok’s entire mature output:

    My guiding spiritual principal, of which I am completely aware since having found myself as a composer, is the ideal of fraternity between people, the realization of their brother and sisterhood despite all enmity and discord.

    Most poly-stylistic musics (Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Rzewski, many jazz and cross-genre music) also have similar ideologies embedded within them. It depends on where you hang out, I guess…I don’t see it as it being all that uncommon. What about the stuff being played on NPR nowadays? Most of that, too.

    Reply
  13. Colin Holter

    Ives – String Quartet No. 2, well, more arguing than agreeing, but nonetheless there are moments of cooperation between each player who represents certain people he encountered throughout his life

    Are you saying that Ives’ second quartet expresses an objective truth? If so, what is it? One sentence, twenty-five words or less. If you can’t do it with this piece, feel free to fall back on another; there are, ostensibly, “too much examples to list.”

    Reply
  14. EvanJohnson

    My guiding spiritual principal [sic], of which I am completely aware since having found myself as a composer, is the ideal of fraternity between people, the realization of their brother and sisterhood despite all enmity and discord.

    ———–
    Most poly-stylistic musics (Schnittke, Gubaidulina, Rzewski, many jazz and cross-genre music) also have similar ideologies embedded within them.

    Why do you hear that in Schittke? Where? Surely the very presence of “polystylism” doesn’t automatically express “an ideal of fraternity between people”!

    Reply
  15. rtanaka

    Ives’ music comes from direct experiences discussing things with people. How we interpret them is subjective, but the substance is based in objective reality.

    There, 25 words exactly, although its obviously a watered down answer.

    It’s quite obvious to me that Schnittke’s polystylism is making a commentary on the clashing cultural forces that exist in modern society, though some composers are more successful in coming to “resolutions” than others. I’d say that Gubaidulina’s works are much more integrated than Schnittke. But in both cases, they are presenting how the world “as they see it”, and

    I could go on and on and list endless examples, but the bottom line is that if you don’t see music as a representation of the human condition then nothing I say will really matter. It’ll just be a bunch of sounds and noises divorced from the context in which it originated. Like language, meaning of the music lies beyond what’s in the notes.

    Reply
  16. EvanJohnson

    I could go on and on and list endless examples, but the bottom line is that if you don’t see music as a representation of the human condition then nothing I say will really matter. It’ll just be a bunch of sounds and noises divorced from the context in which it originated. Like language, meaning of the music lies beyond what’s in the notes.

    That’s a thoroughly false dichotomy. Of course music can function in some sense as a representation of the human condition, if you like; but I would hope it’s not in such a superficial and literal way.

    But in any case, even if you want to reduce Schnittke’s work to presenting some sort of portrait of various musical cultures, where do you get the idea that he intends reconciliation, or unification, or whatever? And do you see the same impulse in, say, Couperin? Or Scarlatti? How “poly” does the stylism have to be for you to see in it a utopian political message?

    This sort of point-to-point “interpretation” prevents any comprehension of any possible “representation of the human condition,” if you ask me. I’d rather focus on the healthy tension between your two caricatured positions above.

    Reply
  17. EvanJohnson

    Ives’ music comes from direct experiences discussing things with people. How we interpret them is subjective, but the substance is based in objective reality.

    So does Cage’s.

    Reply
  18. Colin Holter

    To say that music is (or should be) representative of the human condition is at once both immensely fatuous and pitifully myopic. It’s inconceivable that I could write music representative of the cat condition, the wood louse condition, the marmoset condition, etc., because I am a human. But the verb “to represent” is a bitch, here, because even if I want to represent the human condition, I have to negotiate an infinitely complex labyrinth of communication. There is no 1:1 correspondence. To you, Schnittke sounds like universal brotherhood; to me, it sounds like gross superficiality. (I’m exaggerating both our positions here; I doubt you’d be as glib as I am.) But I’d never argue that his work doesn’t emanate from his experience in the human condition: It just demonstrates an understanding of that condition, an interpretation thereof, that doesn’t line up with mine, and a desire to express that interpretation in a manner with which I’m not entirely comfortable.

    My knowledge of Schnittke’s music is so minimal that I’d better stop, lest I be called out on specifics. . .

    Reply
  19. pgblu

    I don’t claim to “adhere to pure subjectivity.” That too is a fatuous claim. I also don’t know any composer that does. I am saying that there are objective and subjective aspects to all human endeavor. It is the subjective dimension that drives creativity, right? “Here is my truth, different from your truth; let’s see if we can relate to one another.”

    Seeing the orchestra as a kind of parliament is fine, but if it isn’t a whole lot more than that, I wouldn’t be interested in the orchestra at all! If I want to be clubbed in the head by allegory, I’ll go watch Star Wars!

    Ryan, if you look at the world of music in such a reductive way all the time, be my guest, but as an artist you’re shooting yourself in the foot. With your views on art & politics, though, and your eagerness to publicize them, you could see about getting a grant from the Heritage Foundation.

    Reply
  20. rtanaka

    If I want to be clubbed in the head by allegory, I’ll go watch Star Wars!

    I dunno, allegories exist in music whether you’re seeing it or not. Even Cage who tried to distance himself from the compositional process just ended up representing a sort of a existential despair that was very much the vogue during the post-WWII era. There are reasons why works come into being, gain popularity, and lose favor, and these are all related to historical conditions which are grounded in the realism of the existing world.

    It just demonstrates an understanding of that condition, an interpretation thereof, that doesn’t line up with mine, and a desire to express that interpretation in a manner with which I’m not entirely comfortable.

    Schnittke’s music is more parodic than Bartok or Gubaidulina. His music tends to point out more of that absurdities and ironies that result out of juxtapositions of different styles and methods. But either way, they are all referencing something that exists in real life. Bartok’s experiences come from his travels in the war-torn regions of Eastern-Europe.

    I’m just saying what has worked for me. I’ve found that writing from experience is very powerful because its unfalsifiable (can’t really dismiss someone’s anecdotes on intellectual grounds), while at the same time unique to everyone. There’s really no need to try to be unique if you just present yourself as you really are in the clearest manner possible. And this tends to resonate very strongly with those with common experiences — it will obviously not appeal to everyone, but there’s a certain connection that becomes shared when one realizes that someone out there understands what you may have gone through.

    Reply
  21. rtanaka

    If a tree falls in the forest…

    These allegories will always be there, whether the composer wants it to or not. (Without this, music historians and musicologists would be out of a job!) The mere fact that the composer chooses to put their name on a piece of music and use a medium such as the orchestra, for instance, is already indicative of certain choices and actions that lead up to those choices. The only way to relieve the composer from making references to themself or the world would be not to do art at all. Cage frequently spoke about how the “end of art” was coming about — maybe he secretly wished this upon himself, though obviously he wasn’t very successful in doing so.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Conversation and respectful debate is vital to the NewMusicBox community. However, please remember to keep comments constructive and on-topic. Avoid personal attacks and defamatory language. We reserve the right to remove any comment that the community reports as abusive or that the staff determines is inappropriate.