The Friday Informer: Spreading the New Music Gospel

Paging Steve Jobs…


New music composers obsessed with writing like no one in the history of the world? Well, maybe not so much. [Photo courtesy Corey Dargel, via PostClassic]

New York’s newspaper of record has—gasp!—put up a big spotlight on new music this month (though only the selected can get in to read). Meanwhile, however, other scribblers have suggested that the composer is on the brink of “irrevocable desuetude“. Okay, I needed a dictionary before I felt adequately insulted by that, so I’m sort of questioning the veracity of research like this. I suspect it’s a fraud perpetuated on behalf of mothers everywhere desperate to get their offspring to practice. Honestly, they would do better to rig their kid’s video games.

Raised a violinist myself, it never even occurred to me to try and have mine stolen to escape the required practice time. If only I had known such antics could have brought down the entire classical music establishment!

Now, it appears that I’m more given to reflective and complex music, but some of you have been talking about what you can do with a beat this week. If you’re freaked by the Music For Dummies associations, this guy can school you. Approached with some measure of creativity, composers have the darnedest way of making the mundane fresh again. That’s more than we can say for the record industry. Even Starbucks is a few lengths ahead of them in that race.

Relegating classical music to ring tones is one sort of sin, but other suggestions have hit some listeners as equally misguided. In this debate, measured reason wins the day without excommunicating anyone.

Now go forth and spread it.

20 thoughts on “The Friday Informer: Spreading the New Music Gospel

  1. hausorob

    Desuetude: the state of being no longer used

    Somebody lock this guy up in a room with Sandow, Ross & Gann for an hour or two…and take away his thesaurus while you’re at it…

    Reply
  2. william

    I’m surprised that no one here or in Kyle’s blog addresses the theme I think Molly is raising.

    “New music composers obsessed with writing like no one in the history of the world? Well, maybe not so much.”

    Why does there seem to be so much conformity in academic computer music? It is not just that everyone totes a Mac – a sort of hardware status symbol. Everyone pretty much uses the same “in” software too: MAX/MSP, Super Collider, C Sound and maybe a couple others. In spite of the presumed flexibility of these programs, the musics created often sound strangely similar.

    Or?

    William Osborne

    Reply
  3. Dennis Bathory-Kitsz

    William wrote, Why does there seem to be so much conformity in academic computer music? It is not just that everyone totes a Mac – a sort of hardware status symbol. Everyone pretty much uses the same “in” software too: MAX/MSP, Super Collider, C Sound and maybe a couple others. In spite of the presumed flexibility of these programs, the musics created often sound strangely similar.

    I’m not sure what the heart of your objection is.

    Academic conformity? Why not look past academia, if that’s where you think there is an issue? Outside the walls, many of us use tools different from the above, whether acoustic or electroacoustic. (I tote a Windows PC, if that matters.) From those who program their own through plug-in mavens to circuit benders, the individual distinctiveness can be vast.

    And then, if “the musics created often sound strangely similar,” you’re just hearing some common tools and sensibilities of a stylistic period, no? Do you suggest it’s unwelcome to hear this kinship?

    On the other hand, comments here and on Seq21 and sohothedog and renewablemusic and others reveal more differences than commonalities in approaches and compositional credos, with a strong subtext of hostility in some. These differences are manifested in creations that are distinct on and below the surface — different enough that, once you know some of the artists’ works, you know who created new ones.

    It sounds to me like diversity and commonality are in a pretty good balance, with lots of dedicated composers.

    What are you asking?

    Dennis
    http://maltedmedia.com/waam/

    Reply
  4. jock.treager

    well the picture itself is one of many points but I agree that it brings up a scary reality…that most composers are wealthy (macs are expensive) and also I think that these people are checking their email and not composing (wealth has been known to kill the hunger for expansion [and email kills the brain]).
    As an aside, another thing I notice is that most of these ‘composers’ are wearing clothes. Seems suspicious at best. I myself only write in the nude after meditating over lead types.

    Reply
  5. coreydargel

    Mr. Osborne, please do not waste our time with such ignorant nonsense.

    MAX/MSP, Super Collider, and C Sound are not “in” sofware programs; there are plenty of composers who use other programs, and indeed I know several (electronic) composers, myself included, who do not use any of the above programs; the Atlantic Center for the Arts is not an “academic” institution; and none of the composers pictured in either of the two photos on Kyle’s blog are “academic” composers.

    You foolishly take on a whole category of music in which you clearly are not as well-versed as you think you are. Furthermore, you make accusations and pronouncements about composers whose music you didn’t even bother to listen to.

    Reply
  6. william

    Well, ignorant though I may be, I do listen to their music. See my review of the ICMC 2000 published in English in “Music Works”, and in German in “MusikTexte.” Or see my review of the Tim Perkis, Chris Brown, and John Bischoff Trio “Fuzzy Bunny” published in “21st Century Music.” (This trio is closely associated with Mills College.)

    Here is an excerpt from my review of the ICMC 2000 that expresses my view in more detail:

    “Toward the end of the conference, the music began to become rather predictable due to the aesthetic confines of the festival’s programming scheme. The homogeneity also existed because so many people were using relatively similar synthesis programs—especially MAX and SuperCollider. These programs are very flexible, but composing with “patches” can create aesthetic and epistemological biases that incline music toward certain kinds of sounds and effects. Washes of sonic material made by stuttering loops of granulated sound shaped by glissing modulated timbre were ubiquitous, as were improvised, real-time spatializations at the mixing board.

    “If there was a general weakness to the music, it was structure. Timbreal studies are new to western music and so there are few models for structuring them. After observing this problem in previous conferences, Ian Whalley (New Zealand) presented a paper suggesting that system dynamics modeling might be used to create narrative structures for computer music. He demonstrated the idea with computerized flow charts outlining the structures of works such as Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” (End of quote.)

    The reviews are here:
    http://www.osborne-conant.org/articles.htm

    I think that others in the ICMA agreed. A principle concern was the lack of improvised computer music — though that was by no means the only one. They tried an entirely different method of programming at the next festival, though the results were not entirely satisfactory.

    Corey, perhaps you could let us know what some of the other programs are that are being used, and reasons why you think computer music has a lot of variety – perhaps with some examples of pieces.

    William Osborne

    Reply
  7. william

    Denis, by academic computer music I am speaking principally of the composers and aesthetics associated with the ICMA. Many composers seem to feel they most strongly represent the academic side of the field. It is also sometimes suggested the the ICMA is a bit “Uptown” while SEAMUS leans in the “Downtown” direction. (And I realize some object even to the continued use of these these terms.

    In its calls for participation, the ICMC 2000 wrote that, “Computer music is neither a style nor a genre.” Two musicologists from Denmark, Ingeborg Okkels and Anders Conrad, presented a paper which suggested that the ICMC does have an aesthetic bias. They specifically suggested that it leans toward “academic computer music” that focuses on abstract sound created by the latest engineering technologies. Okkels and Anders feel these “engineer composers” are given preference over other groups, such as those following the American tradition of experimental music who often use low-tech instruments such as samplers to collage cultural artifacts. They said that by focusing on tools used, the ICMC declares tacit aesthetic decisions.

    I feel the the ICMA sometimes gives technology more status than musical quality, and that this occasionally causes composers to “hype” their works as more technological than they really are. The technological focus also causes the ICMA to sometimes erase its own history, since musically valuable low-tech electro-acoustic works are seldom presented. Karlheinz Stockhausen, for example, who has left an enormous legacy to electro-acoustic music, was not presented or present at the 2000 conference in Germany. Okkels and Conrad suggested that the price to be paid for favoring “engineer composers” is “that the ‘engineer way’, is extending serial music’s compartmentalization as expert culture” into computer music.

    Anyway, I hope that might clarify a bit which music I am speaking about, and some of the thinking about it. And I appreciate the friendly and dignified way you approach discussions on NMB. You patiently encourage exploration and thought.

    Reply
  8. hausorob

    Why does there seem to be so much conformity in academic computer music?

    I’m just curious why there’s an assumption that the picture and Molly’s comment had anything to do with computer music. Many of us use our computers to write perfectly good string quartets, concerti, ballets, big band charts and other works that have little or nothing to do with SEAMUS or ICMA.

    Again…thinking too hard on what is simply a cleverly tongue-in-cheek photo and comment…

    Reply
  9. william

    Please forgive me if I add an afterthought. Denis asks an interesting question: “Academic conformity? Why not look past academia, if that’s where you think there is an issue?”

    If it difficult to look past academia because its members are often the gatekeepers who control access to grants, prizes, residencies, and professorships. They often also strongly influence which music is recorded and published by some of the larger companies.

    For those reasons, it is important that academic institutions have balanced perspectives and tolerance for a wide range of styles. I think there might be some very good reasons for the ICMA’s strongly technological focus, but it needs to be understood that the organization represents only one aspect of computer music, and that there are valid low-tech forms that should be more actively supported by the sorts of institutions I describe above.

    William Osborne

    Reply
  10. william

    An anonymous correspondent asks, “I’m just curious why there’s an assumption that the picture and Molly’s comment had anything to do with computer music.”

    Most of the correspondents on Kyle’s blog also thought it was about computer music – and especially the use of laptops. Perhaps it has something to do with the conformity of the computers and the caption “Paging Steve Jobs.” Much room for interpretation though. That’s part of the fun.

    Reply
  11. dalgas

    William wrote: Please forgive me if I add an afterthought. Denis asks an interesting question: “Academic conformity? Why not look past academia, if that’s where you think there is an issue?”
    If it difficult to look past academia because its members are often the gatekeepers who control access to grants, prizes, residencies, and professorships. They often also strongly influence which music is recorded and published by some of the larger companies.

    It’s not so hard to see past — if you stop focusing on grants, prizes, residencies, and professorships, as well as the more traditional “gatekeepers” of recording and publishing. Do that and you’ll easily find a huge field bubbling with activity and variety.

    Steve Layton

    Reply
  12. brett

    conformity
    All those composers between, say, Bach and Cage who used pianos (many of them in twelve tone equal temperament) for 200 years — no wonder all their music sounds the same.

    Reply
  13. william

    Steve, it’s true one can look past those forms of the musical establishment and find a lot of musical activity, but that also means accepting bias in the funding of new music that is unfair. Is that something we should just accept?

    Brett, do you think the computer is an instrument like a piano or a violin? Or is it something much broader, a genre that encompasses of very wide range of ways music is even conceptualized? Pianos can’t be programmed. Does that imply that the computer is something fundamentally different than merely being an instrument like a trumpet or cello? The differences between composing with MIDI and the forms of analog composition represented by MAX/MSP or SuperCollider represent something far wider than might be implied by merely seeing the computer as an instrument.

    I think that might be one of the limitations in the perspectives of some of the “laptop composers”, for lack of a better term. It becomes a sort of black box where the biases of the software limit the kinds of music made. Things become a little too predictable and generic. This is also probably a problem because computer music is still very new and there is still much work to be done with programs and interfaces.

    Another significant difference between computers and acoustic instruments is the extent to which the computer is disembodying music. In his keynote address for the ICMC 2000, Joel Chadabe, said, “We want a holistic instrument that stresses the intellect and isn’t dependant on the body. We can play the sounds of a cityscape. Why do you need a body for that?” Even though he is not against the body, he spoke of it as an unnecessary hindrance to music-making, a limitation to freedoms of the intellect.

    Some feel this approach might be based on false assumptions about what humans are. In the last two decades, cognitive psychologists such as George Lakoff have argued that there is no Cartesian dualistic person with a mind separate and independent of the body. Reason is not disembodied. Its very structure comes from the details of our embodiment. Philosophers such as John Dewey and Merleau-Ponty, also view the body as inseparable from reason, the primal basis that shapes everything we can mean, think, know, and communicate.

    The reknowned German media theorist Frederich Kittler has criticized computer music for this reason. He says music does not only come from our brains, but just as much from our legs. It’s origins are in dance and the thousands of other ways our bodies feel music.

    The computer thus has the potential to be something very different than acoustic instruments which are much more corporeally oriented. We may even find that there is no quick path to putting the body in music, and that without the long, existential process of making an instrument and the body-mind one, we weaken cognitive structures that are essential to musical meaning. Technical and aesthetic strategies for solving this problem formulate the future of computer music.

    For these reasons and a number of others, we must understand that the computer is something very different from a piano – even if it can be used as one.

    William Osborne
    William@osborne-conant.org

    Reply
  14. dalgas

    William wrote: Steve, it’s true one can look past those forms of the musical establishment and find a lot of musical activity, but that also means accepting bias in the funding of new music that is unfair. Is that something we should just accept?

    Find the fair model, and I’ll show you someone who cries foul. Work for change, sure; but to a lot of folk, too much rallying around the flag wastes time that they could be making their art.

    As to this whole “computer as something very different” view: it is a very different instrument, but an instrument all the same (and in the final analysis, acoustic to boot!).

    As to limitations, there certainly aren’t any more than a piano or violin, which in many ways are even more “limited”.

    As to the physicality, I don’t see any issues more different than what we accept with film and video in relation to theater.

    Steve Layton

    Reply
  15. william

    Thanks for the interesting thoughts, Steve. You write, “As to the physicality, I don’t see any issues more different than what we accept with film and video in relation to theater.”

    Film and video are recordings of performances and would be more analogous to a music recording like a CD. Perhaps computer music would be more related to an entirely different system of film or video production like 3D animation.

    And yes, activism is only for those who want to bother with it.

    William

    Reply
  16. dalgas

    William wrote: Film and video are recordings of performances and would be more analogous to a music recording like a CD. Perhaps computer music would be more related to an entirely different system of film or video production like 3D animation.

    But not all film and video are recordings of performances, and even many that appear to be are actually highly synthetic and artificial constructs.

    And yes, activism is only for those who want to bother with it.

    Probably why it’s mostly for the young. To finally win just and fair treatment after directing the better part of their life and energy at it makes for a noble martyr, but then that’s become their career. There’s a point where a lot of us bail out simply because there’s so much that needs to get made and only so many years to do it in.

    Steve Layton

    Reply
  17. william

    It is true that both film and music recordings contains elements of reproduction, emulation, and synthesis. It is interesting that almost all of these techniques are often centered around considerations of corporeality.

    Activism need not replace artistic expression. They can be combined, sometimes subtly and sometimes overtly, such as might be compared in the work of Dizzy Guillispe and Miles Davis. Involvement is a matter of personal decision. It is useful to remember that art made without close involvement with the conditions of the world can lead to empty expression. I wonder, in fact, if that might not be a problem with a lot of new music.

    The most meaningful activism obviously comes when artists have close personal connections to the issues they are involved with. Marin Alsop, by necessity, speaks about the rights of women in music. The Sphinx Program in Cleveland helps minority students learn classical music. Only 2% of the orchestra musicians in US orchestras are African-American. I was happy to see that the founder of the Sphinx Program, Aaron Dworkin, who is African-American, won a $500,000 McArthur Fellowship. It might not be too surprising that most of the proverbial “White Guys” aren’t involved with activism. Maybe they don’t need to be. Or am I being too cynical?

    William Osborne

    Reply

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