Chiming In on the Relationship Between Noise, Sound and Music

[Ed. Note: From November 6-10, 2011, the Music Critics Association of North America (MCANA) held a Critics Institute focusing on new music at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. Highlights of the institute included hands-on training on audio editing and recording with composer and Syracuse faculty member Douglas Quin and a concert by the Kronos Quartet featuring the world premiere of Quin’s Polar Suite. In addition, Karissa Krenz moderated a panel discussion about the porous relationship of music, sound, and noise featuring composers James Welsch and Nicolas Scherzinger plus New York Times music critic Vivien Schweitzer. As a preface to a transcript from that discussion featured below, we asked Ms. Krenz to offer some additional thoughts about the ever shifting aesthetics that shape the way we listen to things. In addition, we’ve included a brief Q&A with Douglas Quin by Leah Harrison, a student in Syracuse’s Goldring Arts Journalism Program, about working with Kronos and his singular approach to sound. – FJO]

Karissa Krenz (Photo by Brian Keeler)

When does noise/sound = music? It might just be one of the trickiest, most thought-provoking discussions in contemporary music.

The art music community has discussed this subject for ages. John Cage, of course, pushed the issue in the face of traditionalists decades ago, while bands in the rock world took the concept and ran with it, taking their willing audiences along for the ride. “Classical” purists seem to merely avoid the topic, while countless composers for film and television have changed the way millions listen by literally including all types of “sound” into their “soundtracks.”

In light of composer and sound designer Douglas Quin’s new work for the Kronos Quartet, Polar Suite, which premiered at Syracuse University on November 9, 2011 [ed. note: see a transcript of a talk with Quin below], a few of us gathered to discuss noise/sound/music as part of that week’s MCANA workshop at the SI Newhouse School of Journalism’s Goldring Arts Journalism Program. Could four of us—composer Nicholas Scherzinger, composer/conductor James Welsch, journalist Vivian Schweitzer, and myself (a composer turned editor/writer)—shed any sort of new light on the topic? From the definition of noise to explorations of personal experience, we barely scratched the surface of this vast, multi-faceted series of ideas.

What does each of us consider music? What did we listen to or experience that opened our minds? Did we have to learn to listen to noise as music? How do you teach noise as music? How does culture impact perception? Why does the brain process sound the way it does? Is it easier to believe noise/sound is music when it’s presented as part of something else, like as a soundtrack or in a work of art? Can these questions really ever be answered?

Music, for each of us, is a very personal thing. As we grow and learn, tastes evolve and change. When we’re born, our brains are virtually a blank slate; we don’t even know what music is, per se. It’s not until our family, our friends, our teachers, and the music industry tell us what “music” is that we decide what we think it’s supposed to sound like.

When I set out to define potential topics for this discussion, I thought about my own unique definition of music. I was raised around Western European music—we had my grandfather’s beautiful grand piano in the house, and since my father is a Lutheran pastor, plainchant and the music of J.S. Bach were in my repertoire from the get-go. But I was always a bit off-key as far as my own personal exploration of sound and noise went. As a child I spent hours banging on the piano while holding down the sustain pedal, played with the sounds my voice could make, and, when I eventually took up the cello, spent more time experimenting with it than learning proper technique. I also lived in the middle of the woods, and I loved to just sit and listen to the sound of our little waterfall, the call and response of the crickets, and the way the trees creaked and moaned in the wind. But as I lived in a small town in the United States, I never knew that any of my experiments could be considered music.

It wasn’t until I went to college—where I learned about the many composers creating works using sounds not traditionally considered by the mainstream to be “music”—that I learned I wasn’t completely crazy. I started composing what I now call “sound art” and continued my listening explorations, most importantly discovering that the sounds other cultures used in their music could be dramatically different than those in the Western European tradition.

My own personal definition was cracked wide open. Anything, to me, could be music. And it turns out my three compatriots on the Syracuse panel all had similar experiences.

From a composer’s perspective, as Nicholas pointed out, part of what one does when writing music is study how people react to certain sounds. And while much of that is cultural or experiential, some of it is physiological, as well, and over the last few decades, scientists have devoted countless studies to how the brain processes sound, noise, and music. From studies on the healing powers of music to how the brain reacts to chord progressions, we now know that sound affects startlingly vast regions of the brain.

One recent study that caught my eye just before the panel looked at why most of us cringe at certain sounds, like fingernails on a blackboard. The frequency of the noise and the shape of our ear canals, combined with various psychological elements, create a perfect sound storm that ultimately sends nerves over the edge. Perhaps most interestingly—as far as the noise/sound/music discussion goes—the frequencies of these particular sounds do cause a physical reaction, but when subjects were told it was music, the response wasn’t as negative. (Which explains the outcome one of my own childhood experiments: I decided to desensitize myself to the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard, and I succeeded fairly quickly.)

Regardless of how scientists, academics, or critics break down the “what is music” idea, it is important to remember that “music” exists because we are all living, breathing, thinking humans participating in a process. Composers decide what sounds comprise their music. Performers interpret the score and bring their own perspective to the piece. The audience experiences and processes the sound. We are all part of the equation, and each of our perceptions is unique.

Ultimately, our discussion kept returning to the same point: Our individual definition of music is a value judgment. Our culture, our media, and our peers affect that decision-making process, but ultimately, how we listen, what we listen to, whether or not we like it is up to each of us to decide on our own.

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Karissa Krenz: I think we should just start by introducing ourselves and where we lie in this noise, sound, music world. I was oddly born into this in a weird way. I ended up studying music history and I was composer for a while before I became a music writer/editor. I’m currently working as an editor, writer, producer, but I would have gone into sound art had I continued on my compositional road.

Nicolas Scherzinger: I’m a composer up at Syracuse University. I’m also a saxophonist, so that’s noise. I also teach electronic music and computer music, so this is very much up my alley. I think that’s enough for now.

James Welsch: I also teach up at Syracuse University: theory, composition, and conducting. I have a background in theory and composition from Stetson University where I learned all the basic stuff, but then moved on from that and went into conducting. I was introduced to a lot of new music during my time of graduate study at Syracuse University. I’m very excited to participate in this. We’ll be talking in circles, I’m sure, and I’ll be happy to contribute to the confusion.

Vivien Schweitzer: I’m a freelance writer. I write for The New York Times and The Economist and whoever else will take me. I’m a classically trained pianist. I went to Eastman and after that I decided I didn’t want to be a concert pianist, so I didn’t finish the degree there. I went to a liberal arts college in England where I heard a lot of trance and techno, because that was a big scene in the town I went to, so that was an interesting musical shift after Eastman, but I now hear a huge variety of music in the concerts that I cover.

KK: I thought we could talk a bit about what our definition of music is. We probably each have a personal definition of what noise is. We’re talking sound and noise, but I think people hear sound in a very different way and noise can be a positive thing or a negative thing. To a punk band or—I was going to say young person—noise is a really awesome thing. We’ve all gone through that phase where we just want to listen to crazy stuff, and to other people it may not be. I think I personally go through phases of liking to listen to really crazy stuff and then not being able to handle it. I think also, as I age, my tastes change. I have tinnitus, so that also plays into how I perceive noise.

NS: I think everything we’re talking about tonight is subjective. It depends on your background and your definition. I’ve taught courses here where we get into definitions of what is or isn’t art, what is or isn’t music. I guess we have to be there to hear the sound, but that’s a different question.

KK: We can talk about that, too.

NS: I remember a transformation that happened for me as a composer was as a classically trained musician. I mentioned I was a saxophonist. I studied classical saxophone and jazz at the same time. Jazz and classical are very structured. There are scales and modes and we talk about music and rhythm and all the elements of music, and as I started to compose more, I composed with those elements, so to me, that was music. Then when I went to grad school, part of the things I had to do was take an electronic music course. My teacher was Allan Schindler, who is at Eastman, and it totally blew me away because all of a sudden I was dealing with just sound. I didn’t have to think about rhythm or even pitch. I could simply take a sound and make music with that. So after spending a couple years working like that, when I came back to writing instrumental music, it changed how I wrote it. All of a sudden I was thinking about the orchestra or even the solo violin in a very different way because I was thinking about, not just the traditional sounds that I could get from the instrument, but all the other sounds that are possible. That’s often the case now when I play saxophone. What kind of sounds can I use to construct a piece of music? So, it’s a fascinating question. Where does sound and where does art—music—begin? I don’t know. To me maybe the interesting thing is the gray area in between and trying to live in there.

JW: This very broad question is devastatingly personal—our understanding of sound and how we order it, especially those who may be creating or recreating the sound itself, is very different from those experiencing it as audience members. I think in terms of sharing, we all have some sort of thing that we look back on in the development of our understanding of sound and how that plays in to larger ideas.

James Welsch

James Welsch

I, too, thanks to a liberal arts education, had to take a computer music class and I found it awful. We were working with earth and sea sounds. Even though I was a composer, it was just not the medium for me. I wasn’t making this what you could do with a sound, taking a very basic wave and being able to manipulate it into many different things. Then I found composers who upheld similar ideas that I had in terms of regular old classical serious music, or whatever that was. Composers like Jonathan Harvey and James Tenney appealed to me. So from that point I found that gray area and reconsidered what sound was. I’d grown up in a band program, so I assumed music was band music. Over time you’re introduced to several different things and you’re forced to consider many different aspects of the motion of sound and space around you.

VS: I was thinking when we were talking about this about Georg Friedrich Haas, who is an Austrian composer associated with the spectral school. I interviewed him recently and he said he likes a lot of his works to be performed in complete blackness. This sounds like it could be a little bit gimmicky, but he said there are so few times when you are sitting in complete darkness—without a street light, without anything—and that that changes how you hear the composition itself, so instead of listening to his music, you’re listening to it more as sound. That’s what he wants. He creates these massive soundscapes. There’s no melody, no rhythm, nothing like that; it’s just this completely unfolding panorama.

JW: I’ve sat many times in a student composer recital. We urge them to write an electronic piece and have that on their recital. Often times it was very difficult for me to get into their sound world so early or to understand what they were projecting in ordering the sound in a particular way. I’d look over and see Nick with his eyes closed. I was like, well, maybe I should try that. Maybe I should try shutting my eyes and just listening to the formation of sound. It may be gimmicky, and I don’t know to what extent we do that to the music that we hear, but maybe it’s a step for music that’s not easily grasped.

VS: It also affects how you hear everything else. I remember really distinctly after the first time I heard it [Haas’ music] and then I walked outside Miller, in the area around Columbia [University], suddenly all these street sounds were higher. Sirens and cars honking and all the noises you hear a million times a day on the street suddenly took on this really startling significance, which is really strange, but I think after an hour sitting in the pitch black just listening to this incredible piece, my ears had become really attuned to every sound—every noise—in a different way. It didn’t blend in; it all jumped out.

KK: That kind of begs the question: do you need to learn how to appreciate sound as music? I grew up playing with sound all the time. I grew up in the middle of the woods with not a whole lot to do, so I’d be hanging off the couch and humming and doing crazy stuff or I’d bang on the piano with the sustain pedal down and listen to it. I got to college and I learned I wasn’t insane. There were people that actually appreciate this. We had a workshop with Pauline Oliveros and I learned her deep listening stuff. That time with her changed everything. We’ve all been taught or have taken the time to appreciate these things, so we think people can just go in and appreciate it. But I know a lot of people that will say if I went to such and such type of concert that I’m completely insane.

JW: I don’t know. There’s another school or often-debated question about those that are teaching improvisation. Is improvisation something that you can teach, or to what extent do you teach that? I think to some extent, that’s bull in that that’s really not the question. It’s more a question of considering sound in a different way and—along the lines of Pauline Oliveros—understanding how being sensitive to the environment shapes the sound around you. You can’t apply the same sort of listening tactics that have been thrust upon you before with things like this. Pauline usually performs for an hour and then at some point she’s listening to the space and becoming aware of what’s around her. Once she heard fire trucks moving and decided to incorporate them into her performance. People came up to her afterwards and said something like, “So, how did you get the fire trucks to come here? You must have had a hand in that.” But it was something as simple as considering the sound and allowing it to be a part of the performance. I don’t know if that can be taught. I think that’s something that would have to be programmed.

KK: So have either of you taught or tried to teach it?

NS: Yeah, and I think one thing is when I’m teaching composition, and whether it’s composition and the student’s writing a string quartet, or if that composition is electronic or a computer-generated piece or would be a free improvisation, for lack of a better term. The big thing we learn as composers is how we react to sounds. The sound could be a chord, it could be a rhythm, or it could be a sound of something. I think Vivien brought up an interesting point—how you reacted after the concert. That’s what a composer does, or someone who constructs some kind of piece of music, whether it’s based on—again, for lack of a better term—traditional musical elements or sound elements, the techniques are somewhat related in terms of how I’m going to react and build.

Nicholas Scherzinger

Nicholas Scherzinger

I’ve always asked this of my students: define music. What makes music? What is music as opposed to some of the other art forms? One of the things we always come up with is time. That music is an art from that exists in time. There are other art forms that exist in time. One of the great things about being able to go to New York City is going to the Museum of Modern Art and seeing everybody going in there because they can go in and leave right away, whereas if they’re going to go hear the latest John Corigliano piece, you’ve got to stay there for the whole thing. You can’t say, “Oh, that was nice; I think I’ll leave now.” You’re going to make a scene.

It becomes this thing about reacting and how to react, and can composition be taught? Yes and no. I remember sitting in my composition lessons with my electronic music teacher and playing something for him and him going, “You’ve got this stuff happening way up at 12,000-13,000 Hertz, and I was going, “What are you talking about?” So, just learning how he heard, how he could listen to a cacophony of sound and pull things out the same way that I can listen to a Beethoven piano sonata and hear something different after the twentieth time, then hear, “Oh, my gosh, this mode is related to that. Oh, that’s really neat; that’s really cool.” Or “Wow, that sound that was happening way over there is now over here but it’s more and there’s form and there’s shape.” How to teach that? I don’t know. Maybe it’s just an awareness, beginning with an awareness that it actually exists, then that becomes something that opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

JW: I think to some extent, we expect art to do that for us, to help us constantly reconsider the way that things, perhaps, have been ordered before and to reconsider if they were put on paper, how performance can affect that. It can affect your understanding of the piece later and, in the case of Vivien, showing up at the concert being hypersensitive to the things around you as a result of experience. That is something that you hope for or you would expect from art, to some extent.

KK: When pieces of yours are being performed that take a lot of audience effort, should we say, to listen to and to appreciate, maybe, if it’s not a typical audience, do you kind of get a vibe from the audience? Can you feel how they’re reacting, Vivien, if you’re at a show that is asking a lot from the audience?

VS: There’s definitely a sense of rustling and checking watches, checking programs and texting. Then in some rare cases—it doesn’t matter what people are playing, whether it’s new or basic—you can sense the entire auditorium is actually listening. Some performers actually draw in an entire hall and get people to stop fidgeting and stop doing whatever they’re doing, checking their phone, and actually listen. But often the harder the piece, which is also the case with a contemporary composition, then the rustling and distraction is pretty intense.

JW: Then there are composers that really embrace that sort of aspect of it and include it or consider it part of their composition. That’s part of the experience for them. Some of that, I think, might be a write off; some of them don’t get around to it. They’ll come around. There is a ritual associated with all of this that we can’t forget about. It is hard for people to experience things in a sense of newness every time that it’s going on. To go to a premiere of something that is jarring or different to you and to turn yourself off of the preconceived notion in order to consider it in the moment as it is happening is a hard thing to do.

VS: When I think noise, I think that type of work has always been hard for the vast majority of people to listen to. There are things that are purely noise: no connecting rhythm or melody. Audiences tend to get the most distracted if it’s a 25-minute abstract piece and there’s nothing to grab on to. If there’s nothing connecting the noises, if that’s all it is.

KK: There’s also the psychological and physiological aspects of all of this, too. When it’s a 25-minute abstract crazy piece, there’s something about the brain. They’re doing all these scientific studies now about how to heal through music, doing CAT scans and seeing how the brain is responding to sound. I read a news story in which some German university, I can’t remember which, did a study about our aversion to the sound of nails on a chalkboard; it sets off a string of processes that our brains just can’t handle. But when I was kid I decided that I was not going to let the chalkboard thing bother me and I did it enough until I got used to it and I didn’t have that reaction.

NS: In electronic or computer music, one of the first things I teach is when we take a sound of the piano and get rid of the attack, it doesn’t sound like a piano. If you just take the first three-tenths of a second or something, you just kind of fade in and it sounds like a trumpet. You can’t distinguish the sound. So I wonder if you took the scraping and you edit it or mix it with other kinds of sounds, you may not actually recognize it for what it is. It’s funny how we make associations all the time and what we associate is our experience. I have some friends who are such extreme avant-garde improvisers that when they perform here, at the end of the night, there are only three people in the audience. Then they go to Europe and the people are like, “Oh, that was nice. That was lovely. That was mild.” It’s the context of the audience sometimes. I thought that way about sometimes going to a Mozart concert. You’re like, “Mozart again?” But it’s also really dependent on the performer as well. It’s funny that we’re talking about electronic music and spectral music and stuff, and yet it’s that there’s that human element somehow in here. It’s the person who has created the sounds or who has constructed or found the sounds, who has somehow been attracted to them, that also makes the difference.

JW: Definitely. The audience itself is a living, breathing organism. I think that’s the allure of electronic music. People can manipulate sound in certain ways, being able to experience things that have been so ordered for us for such an extended period of time that we’re able to reconsider that in a different way and order things differently, to experience sound in a different way, which is altogether frightening and scary of the possibilities, but also really exciting.

VS: I think when people are listening, most people need something. It doesn’t have to be that you’re looking for a melody or it doesn’t have to be that you need rhythm, but you need continuity or some kind of momentum. What I particularly like about some of the spectral composers is it’s not that there’s something melodic or rhythmic, but there’s something to latch on to. You have these incredible sounds and there is some kind of momentum to it, so it doesn’t sound like it’s just literally completely random sounds.

KK: Maybe that’s why people can listen to some crazy music that doesn’t seem to make any sense if it’s in a soundtrack. Like what Bernard Herrmann did in Psycho—it’s insane scraping, but everybody’s fine with it and those sounds are now in the lexicon.

NS: Sometimes you’re really just in that mood. I remember the first time I heard Black Angels; it was shocking. The piece has been around now for many years since the moment that I first heard it, and sometimes now I’m really in that Black Angels mood. Sometimes you really want to hear Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach. Really, what’s to that, other than one, two, three, four? One two, one, two, three, four. One, two, one, two, three, five, six, seven. But sometimes you’re in that mood. Even though it is grating and it does something to us, we, as humans, I think we want to experience those things, but maybe not all the time.

JW: The first time I played Black Angels, I stared it and I had a cockatiel named Babette and a very bright sound system. The first sounds came and the bird literally went ack and fell off her perch to the bottom of the cage. I have never seen that before.

NS: I guess I recreate this every year when I ask my freshman theory students to go listen, to introduce them to new pieces. One of the pieces is Black Angels. I have them listen to it after Cantus in Memoriam of Benjamin Britten by Arvo Pärt. They all have a similar reaction. It’s a cruel thing to do, but I hate to lie to them.

KK: Another study I read once claimed that you have to listen to chords a certain number of times before it becomes pleasurable for the brain. Any chord that’s unusual, our brain has an issue with the first time we hear it; it takes a few listenings for it to connect to us as something which hopefully is eventually pleasurable.

Audience Member: It’s like right now. There are fans going in the room, so there’s lots of white noise in here. When I first came in, I was really attuned to that. I was really hearing all these high frequencies, and as we’ve been talking and sitting here, those sounds are almost gone. Now we’re probably all aware of it again, right? There have been studies about this, about how our brain will just tune out certain sounds. This is a fascinating thing.

But noise for one person is sound for another person. Nick knows my two boys, Joshua and Christopher. Joshua, when the decibels are more than 60, it’s noise to him. Christopher, when it’s less than 60, he can’t hear it. It has to be loud in order for him to experience it. At the same time, Christopher will make this sort of a guttural humming sound. The first time I asked him what he was doing, he said, “I’m making music.” I said, “What music are you making?” He said, “I’m making the music of the sound of the garage door when it opens and you come home.”

So everybody has different qualifications and to a young, untrained mind, there’s a perceptibility and a fluidity that allows noise and sound to be both. I think that over the years, we’ve become so conditioned and so trained and so architecturally structured that it takes some time for us to delineate and to perceive clearly the differences between noise and sound.

My two boys are very flexible in finding their own interior monologue, as it were, that helps them to determine whether that sound is sound or whether the noise is noise. I’m just curious, Nick, have you found the same thing with Noah? Have you seen the same sorts of things with him?

NS: Yeah, and the associations are amazing and he’s not a trained…he’s almost four. He’ll be four in two weeks. He’s had this fascination with trains. We took him to New York when he was six months or so, and he loved the subway. From there, “bing bong,” the [subway] door sound. My wife has been playing the piano and when she plays that interval, he immediately associates it with the subway. When she does those exact pitches in other pieces, he runs from the room and says, “Subway, subway! Do that again.” It’s amazing how we’re wired and how the filters, then, they’re still going to clog up. We still have to learn more. It’s like we become open to less in a way.

JW: We call it sophistication, but I think it becomes reduction somehow. I wish that weren’t the case. I wish that we continued to expand using a sound, whether it’s Beethoven or Schubert or whoever it is and wherever you start, but as a leaping-off point for something new and dramatic as you go forward. I was lucky because I had Robert Helps and several other people to bring to me the Stockhausen moments of my life. I would hope that we would continue to open those doors and endeavor to expand listening ability and fluidity to maybe going back to being four and five years old.

KK: How we interpret noise and sound is also cultural. Different cultures use different sounds and different organizations of notes and things like that and it really depends on where you are. You were talking about how in Germany people perceive something completely differently. My parents went to China and they were taken to opera and it was the worst part of their trip. It was the worst two hours of their lives listening to Chinese opera. We really are shaped by what people tell us to like. Maybe that’s not the greatest thing.

JW: You mentioned that it takes some time for a new chord to really reach the pleasure area of our brains. I hope to speak to some extent about why some music, noise, sound, or whatever you want to call it, might be ineffectual. The listener is not going to hear it the exact same way as we would, maybe, the ordering pitches in a Brahms symphony. We can put on many different recordings and listen to that over and over and over again and eventually, for those that begin to accept it, might end up very much liking Brahms First Symphony or whatever the case may be. But there’s a tremendous gray area in music that is either improvised or has many different ordering of sound that may or may not be created that way again and becomes, therefore, difficult for us to find that pleasure moment with it.

VS: I think sometimes, also, if it really is something that’s more about sound, you’re listening to it more. It’s less about a passionate listening experience and more something that’s interesting or intriguing. You can have lots of really cool sounds with cactuses, which people like John Cage has done stuff with. Any found object can be turned it into an instrument and it’s really, really cool. They create all these funky different sounds. But I’m not going into it to be swept away like I may perhaps, in a Beethoven symphony. It’s more of an interesting, mind-opening experience as opposed to one of letting yourself go, like with Brahms or something you’ve heard before.

JW: Right, it’s forcing us to reconsider.

NS: It’ll still be a fascinating question in 50 years.

Vivian Schweitzer

Vivian Schweitzer

VS: Also, one thing I kind of wonder is there seem to be two roads, perhaps. I mean, there are more than two roads, but there’s the art/music road and noise and sound is pretty well embraced in the popular music world and the masses are listening to things that the traditional classical music audience, if we would bring it to them using the same kind of noise, sound, whatever, would be like, “No, I’m not listening to that,” or, “That’s horrible.”

But, there are people going to clubs and selling—well, they’re not selling that many records anymore—but they’re having successful careers beyond what a person working in the art music scene would have. Why do you think that is? I guess there are people who are conditioned to like it in another kind of way.

NS: You said the word condition. I think we just keep coming back to value judgments. Bob Morris, who was a professor of mine when I was in grad school, writes these crazy outdoor pieces. He’s this kind of serial composer, writes very twelve-tone, it’s not very audience-friendly kind of music. It’s not Mozart, let’s just say. He’ll present these pieces where 100 musicians are in a forest and they’re all playing in all different kinds of places and it’s all mapped out. It’s very, very controlled. If my father was there, who’s not a musician, he’d say, “This is garbage. This isn’t music.” Yet every time I’ve gone to those kinds of performances, because they’re often in public places, any children there are fascinated and they love it. They haven’t built up those prejudices, so they’re totally amazed by this. They’re like, “Wow, those are such great sounds.” They’re not thinking about music versus not music. But as you get older, you start to see the parents kind of going, “Ugh.”

VS: When kids are banging on the pot, it’s like, “Shhh, stop banging on that, you’re making too much noise.” But the kids don’t care.

JW: It’s forcing convention on you. I think in a lot of ways, our labels have been so detrimental to considering things. Just the other day in preparation for this, I was reading a book edited by John Zorn called Arcana and in his forward he mentions these isms: serialism, modernism. These sorts of things put us into neat little pockets so that we can identify things more easily. We can put them into a pocket.

Then from that, it really forces us not to be able to describe it more easily, but rather to stop describing it. We put it in a pocket. We know what its listing points are, but much further than that, we don’t consider much, so we know what Stravinsky sounds like and we can put him in an area, but we would rarely consider instruments in a different way.

A lot of that has to do with marketing capability. You put it into a place. Where does this band fit? Okay, retro funk, or whatever subsidiary of dance music, whatever. There are so many. But it’s so silly to even try and do that. It’s just not enough to simply talk about music and enjoy it in that way. I think our labels, really, have been so detrimental in us –

VS: I think people like the labels to some degree.

NS: We do that with everything. That’s our nature. I’ll go, “I think I’ll have Thai food tonight.” I kind of know what to expect when I see a Thai restaurant or a fast food restaurant. We tend to want to do that. I think it might give an audience some comfort to think, “O.K., the romantic works.” I may not know, it could be Brahms, it could be Mendelssohn. I’ve got a sense of what that could be as opposed to hip-hop or whatever. But, if I just saw “Music,” I’m not going to go; it could be anything.

Audience Member: I’m just curious from the panel the kinds of experiences that have helped to determine the turning point. In literature, we don’t want to keep our masses at the comic book level. At some point you want them to experience a great novel; you want them to experience a classical Shakespearean moment. You want to elevate them and you want them to have an understanding of sophistication. Not that you can’t get that in comic books, but in music we know that there’s a point at which there’s a flip of a switch that occurs that elevates something to an art form as opposed to a popular form where—I don’t know what it is. Why do we have to categorize it? Why is that imperative? At some point, I believe that we need to validate somehow those moments that are important to us. For me it was my first encounter with Strauss that made a difference. I’m just curious for you in today’s musical voices and in the people who are leading the charge and who are making the statements, I’m just curious for you who they are, where they are, and what those moments have been like for you.

VS: I think the music or events that I’m really gelling with these days are actually people who are working in the popular world who are exploring the art world. They made names for themselves in rock or alt or electronica, but then are partnering with somebody in art music and crossing over that way. I personally think that’s a great way to get more people to listen and get them listening to different things and think about things.

KK: Also, why is popular bad? Sometimes, yeah, Justin Bieber makes my head explode, but then that’s just me. Really, why is he bad? There are millions of people that love him, so again, it’s a value judgment. I think it’s great when somebody goes from popular to art or works together to make great music and great art.

NS: We do gather consensus. There is a sense that we can all agree that Mozart was a great composer; somehow there’s something that he did that was unique and special. There were hundreds of composers alive at exactly the same time, if not thousands, who did exactly the same thing that we know nothing about that sort of disappeared into oblivion. That’s the case today and in any time in history. It’s a fascinating question. To me, the answer has always been the voice. It’s always been, for some reason, Stravinsky had a voice. Maybe it was him not afraid to confront his fears and just be able to just say, “Okay, this is it.” When you think about great artists of any discipline, that’s often the thing. I think about Steve Reich, the guts to do what he did and to just, “This is it.” To just let it out. What comes from that is this unique voice. Then there’s everyone else that tries to imitate or there’s some other agenda, but again, this is just my own personal observation and conversation I’ve had with other people, but there are these people all of sudden that you just feel like they’re in this because there’s nothing else they can do.

I remember my very first composition teacher telling me, “Nick, if you can walk away from music, do it.” I’ve tried my whole life. I try all the time and I always end up coming back. Maybe someday I will walk away, but I always keep coming back to it. I think that’s something that somehow, why it is that we do things? Those become the interesting questions that then make something stand out. Specific details, that’s the hard one.

JW: I think in terms of electronic composition, working with acoustic sounds and infusing them with original ones, Jonathan Harvey really does it for me. The way that he works with the voice, the actual voice, is miraculous. Then Ligeti. Ligeti is somebody who lived in his own camp. Nobody could touch him. Nobody could emulate that because it was all too original. It was all done in this sort of vacuum. Outside influences, yes, but that’s incidental to how he ordered things in such really different and amazing ways. Of course there are others. So many composers name Messiaen as their important influence. Vivien, what’s happening in New York City these days? If it’s not Paris and it’s not Berlin, New York is where things are happening. What’s it like there?

VS: There’s a massive range of things right now. Compositionally you’ve got people on absolutely every end of the spectrum doing pretty traditional tonal orchestral works, you’ve got people doing much funkier atonal-type things on the other end. You’ve got a whole bunch of composers that are just completely unclassifiable using bits of pop, bits of rock, some classical, electronica. He’s not based in New York, but Mason Bates who is writing works for string orchestra with him DJing. There’s every possible imaginable genre going on. There are composers who are not even really classical composers in the sense they have so many pop and rock influences. You’ll hear a lot of this music downtown in places like (Le) Poisson Rouge, which is a place in the West Village.

Audience Member: I think one of the people who has best described this is Kyle Gann who has been writing about this as totalism, since we’re talking about –isms. That’s an –ism that actually is an anti-ism. It’s a great way of thinking of it because there is a new generation of composers that forego all sounds and all types of genres in music, high/low is gone. Up and down, laterally, and in terms of size. All those sounds are available for their palate. I think totalism is a very interesting idea. We can talk about, especially, as the aesthetic movement has developed in the last 15, 20 years.

VS: There are groups that specialize and play absolutely everything like eighth blackbird. They really will play pretty much everything from a hardcore Milton Babbitt, Elliott Carter-type thing to something that’s essentially pop and everything in between. And they do it really, really well.

JW: They’ll be in Syracuse January 24th.

VS: They’re a great show. Everything they do, they play fantastically well; it’s really theatrical. They sound like they really believe in every spectrum of the compositional spectrums.

Audience Member: To some degree, eighth blackbird and a lot of these other groups are sort of like bands. They’re really a cross between a rock band and an ensemble and that, I think, is a really fabulous development. As far as the phrase “bad music”, that’s a really bad phrase because there really isn’t any such thing as bad music. There’s music that you cannot stand to listen to, but that doesn’t make it bad.

KK: Yeah, somebody likes it somewhere. The person who wrote it likes it.

JW: I hated Bartók when I first heard it. He’s one of my favorite composers, but when I first heard it, I was like, ugh. It’s so subjective.

NS: That’s aesthetics. That’s a personal instinct that develops over time. We can’t influence other people. Well, we can influence, I suppose, other people’s aesthetic, but we certainly can’t listen to music for them. That’s something that I think develops over time as you get older and you experience more.

Audience Member: Don’t you think that the listener has a certain obligation? How important is it to be willing to meet the composer halfway? That’s probably 50% of the issue when it’s music that is, quote, “hard to listen to”. I don’t think people know that there is a certain effort, work, on their part that needs to happen in order for them to appreciate it.

Another Audience Member: I agree.

NS: They have sound and noise. It’s not a new thing. When Varèse wrote a piece for just percussion that was in the ‘30s. That was 80 years ago. People think about John Cage formulating his ideas, but this was brewing in the air—Debussy listening to a gamelan ensemble and being influenced by it, all those different things that when cultures clash and there’s exchanging of ideas.

I remember having a conversation with Libby Larsen and she’s convinced that the end of the romantic period actually happened in 2000. The beginning of contemporary music or the next big break in music is going to happen now, and it’s true. It’s so easy now to make sound sculpture with computers, where it’s almost instantaneous. It’s a matter of milliseconds. It’s imperceptible to most people that I put sounds in the computer. We have iPhones and things that do those types of things. We have apps that can do that now that didn’t exist ten years ago, let alone five years ago. I think about when I was in grad school 10-15 years ago and the computer processed my sound overnight. I had to program it and I’d leave because it would take ten minutes for it to reverse the sound. We put it into a queue. You’d come in the next day to hear it.

All that’s happening instantaneous now. Conservatories and schools of music have people who are getting trained in sound and music-making who have no training in music. These people are going to become important movers and shakers in music. It’s a really fascinating time, actually, to think about all these kinds of issues and to think about where we’re going to go and how we’re going to deal with this as audiences and creators of music. With the Internet, it’s really amazing to think about. Some people talk about the recording studio and then the computer becoming the revolutionary thing now in this 21st century and that’s going to become the fundamental twist in how we think about music.

KK: And the people that are doing it are changing. I go to so many art installations now that sound is an important part of them. Visual artists are now composing or making sound art or whatever you want to call it, so that’s a whole new thing. And like I said, I think that’s where I would have ended up, ultimately, had I continued composing. Also, I think the Internet and technology is giving everybody more access to everything. There aren’t any laws. You can listen to whatever you want and be influenced by whatever you want. I think that’s a game changer that didn’t exist ten years ago.

JW: It’s fascinating that in New York [City] you have so much stuff out there. You have those groups that are focused on particular kinds of music and then you’ve got other groups doing all kinds of different stuff. Then we come back to those same questions about what is great art? Is that really important? I don’t know.

Audience Member: The other issue is the, quote, “taste-makers”, speaking of music critics, that they’re really where the standard is. Who’s going to tell people what they should listen to or what they shouldn’t? That’s a whole other issue.

JW: You find that at a wine tasting. My goodness, whatever the case may be.

NS: Create this very easy separation between this and that.

Audience Member: I wanted to direct this partially to Vivien and what we do as music critics. Vivien, clearly from what you’re saying, you spent a lot of time going to a wide diversity of music, so that your ears are constantly open. At the same time, I’m listening to panelists who are composers who talk about the first time I heard Bartók, “Arghh” or the bird with Crumb. That takes you to the whole issue of what happens when we as music critics hear things that are in a different realm than we’ve been in before, what language we use and how we present it to people in a way that opens the hand rather than closes it?

VS: I have to say I dislike aspects of reviewing premieres, which is not because I dislike listening to new music, because I like listening to new music usually, but what I dislike about reviewing a premiere is I feel like you’re so focused on actually trying to just follow it. You know, what is the woodwind doing? What is that percussion doing? You don’t have any time to actually process it. Half the time after I’ve heard something new, the first thing I think is now I’d like to hear it again now that I’ve actually sat there and tried to hear what’s going on without really just taking it in. I think it is hard. It’s like the first time if you’re just learning a new language and you hear a conversation spoken really fast in the language, you’re kind of on edge. You can’t really figure what’s going on. Then maybe six months later you can sit back and relax and understand what they’re saying.

With anything, especially if it’s a more—as they say—“audience unfriendly” piece, it’s really, really hard to critique it on one listen. I think a lot of critics, unfortunately, you end up doing a kind of play by play of, “And then the violins came and this is what happened and the percussion is doing this,” which is not actually that interesting to read, if I can be honest here. I think it’s just because you haven’t had a chance to absorb it. All you’ve had a chance to do when you’re not only listening to it the first time, but trying to frantically take notes so you can remember what’s happening, is all you’re getting is a play by play without being able to just sit back and actually just absorb it and listen to it.

I think ideally, and I guess it would probably never happen, is that critics should go to a premiere and then go again and review the second concert, which I think would be a lot fairer to the composer and be more interesting to the audience but of course this doesn’t always happen because the premiere is often the only time it’s ever done.

It’s really, really hard to write about. I found myself when I read my review, I’m like, “That sounds so boring; it doesn’t do it justice.” It does end up being this tedious sounding play by play of what I heard, not any overarching feeling, just because I was trying so hard to listen to what the composer was doing. I couldn’t listen to it like I would if I’m listening to a Beethoven symphony I’ve heard 3,000 times; I know what’s happening and I can assess how I’m feeling about it.

Audience Member: I sometimes talk my way into dress rehearsals. When I reviewed Heart of a Soldier, which is hardly challenging music, before they even invited all the critics to the dress rehearsal, I asked to go to the dress rehearsal so that when I finally wrote the review I had seen it twice. I was clear on a lot of things.

VS: We’re not exactly invited in. I think that’s because people are still rehearsing and they don’t really want a bunch of critical types sitting there listening to it, which is fair.

Audience Member: I also want to say that one of the hardest things about reviewing a premiere for music is that unless you have the score, you’re not entirely sure what’s being played. I’ve heard lots of new music, first-time performances where they were very approximated and I feel horrible for the composer because the performance, as much as we’re trying to get it and understand the language hearing it, so are the musicians.

VS: History is littered with disastrous premieres of great pieces.

Audience Member: Musicians know how Beethoven symphonies go and they’ve played it a million times. They’ve heard them, they’re raised on them, and they have that language. So, they’re also presented with a new language that they’re trying to rehearse, usually with limited rehearsal time. Then you go to a new premiere and you hear a real approximation of a new score. It’s even harder when you’re reading the score trying to hear what the score would sound like at the same time you’re listening to the approximation and you’re trying to come up with an assessment. It’s really difficult.

VS: I think new music has to be played better. Your run of the mill, vaguely competent pianist who plays some Chopin, it’s going to be at least pleasant unless they’re literally banging wrong notes, it’s going to be fine. But, your averagely competent pianist cannot pull off a whole evening of Schoenberg. They have to be better than average to do that. If you have averagely talented, let’s say, pianists, that could have pulled off a Beethoven sonata and they’re playing some complicated 21st century music just okay, it’s ten times worse than if they’re just playing Beethoven, because at least you know Beethoven. So I think new music is done a terrible disservice if it’s not played really well. Schoenberg is obviously not new music. But I remember hearing several works—I can’t remember which—several times live and being so bored. Then suddenly I heard them at a different concert played by someone who obviously really believed in the music and it was a completely different experience. I think you have to have performers that so believe in it and ideally have more than 20 minutes to just run through it.

I think none of it is really ideal, neither the rehearsal process nor the reviewing process. Speaking of reviewing the concert after the premiere, the sad fact, as you know, is when there is no concert after the premiere. The work is premiered and then it’s lots of fanfare and then you don’t hear it again or you hear it again eight years later. You’ve also then described this piece that no one can hear and the record company may or may not record it, and if they record it, it might be released three years later and by then the buzz is long dead.

JW: I think it’s a fascinating question, then, too, to think about. I’ve been fortunate to have a few pieces performed more than even ten times and let’s say even by the same group. It’s amazing to then hear musicians talk about the process they go through, so none of them are just going through rehearsal and premiere, but then performance, performance, performance, performance, performance, and then, finally, “Oh, I get it. I know this piece now.” That’s an interesting thing to think about, the tenth, the twentieth, the thirtieth performance.

The jazz pianist Bill Evans said that he would take a year to learn a piece. Every night he would play it in a different key and he would only decide after a year of playing it, “Well, this one feels best in E flat.” That’s when he finally would learn a piece of music, when he finally felt like he knew a piece of music—a year of playing it day in and day out. I forget the piece, but I heard Menahem Pressler perform a Beethoven sonata. I’m embarrassed I don’t remember the opus number. He’s been playing this piece he’s said for every day for the past 30 years. He knows the piece like nothing else in the world and to have heard him play that was just amazing because we could have been sitting in his living room. It was this beautiful sense of, “Wow, that’s amazing.”

Audience Member: I had a professor who had worked for RCA Victor in the 1930s and ‘40s and wrote programming notes for 78 RPMs. He went to rehearsals and performances of a lot of RCA’s materials. He went to one of Toscanini conducting Beethoven’s Ninth. It was an actual recording session. He said it was just breathtaking. It was, I think, the fifth time that Toscanini had recorded and they played it everywhere since. He said at the very end, Toscanini got off the program, walked out, walked past him and said, “Well, that’s the best I can do with it.”

KK: Well, with that, I would like to thank the panelists for their time.

***

Douglas Quin

Douglas Quin

Q & A with Douglas Quin
By Leah Harrison

Leah Harrison: How did working with the Kronos Quartet influence your composition? Would you have written the piece differently if you were writing it for a different group?

Douglas Quin: Working with Kronos is a very unique prospect because of the way they hear the world; it was truly magical at every stage of the process. Because we were using the new K-bow by Keith McMillen and his company, we were entering into uncharted territory. There was a sense of partnership. It wasn’t me so much giving them a score to perform, but rather arriving at a common language, a common understanding of human technology interface. This could lead audiences to new places of listening and new ways of experiencing a concert as a community (and also the subject matter of the polar experience—from the Artic to the Antarctic, places and spaces that are certainly the subject of rhetoric in the news, or subject to mythologizing in the public imagination), to connect people with a visceral sense of those places.

For the quartet, I think, their wonderful embrace of technology, of sonic adventure, and willingness to think of composition and music not simply as a form of entertainment but as a form for discussion, a form for communal experience, gave us latitude to work together in a different way—a partnership, a collaboration, an extended conversation with Keith McMillen (who invented the K-bow). I always think of this as us all holding hands at the deep end of the pool and just jumping in together. There was a strong dynamic between all of us as we negotiated the technology and explored the wonder of sound, creatures, and phenomenon that describe the Poles of this planet. Working with Kronos on this piece really allowed us to grow, to question, and to really try to weave together an experience for our audience that was something new. The focus was not so much on novelty, but to allow the conversation to go in a different direction about the nature of performance, the nature of the concert hall, and how we connect to the natural world beyond our buildings and our clothing and everything else. A lot of what we were really looking to shape and form through this was a collaborative conversation.

LH: Tell me about the marriage of raw, natural sound and advanced technology. Why do two seemingly juxtaposing elements work well together?

DQ: When we experience natural sound, there’s a directness to that. For me, my interest in natural sound is that this is the music and resonance of our world. Whether you’re in an urban situation or out in the country, the soundscape is a kind of living, breathing aspect and resonance of life on earth, life in the universe. The universe is oscillating in the big bang and I think sound is just a fractal of that original big bang, in a sense. For me, there is a cosmic dimension to the experience of natural sound. But we are nature, so natural sound is also a park, it’s downtown Manhattan, it’s the Santa Monica freeway at rush hour. This is the nature of which we are a part. I’m particularly interested in other creatures, finding them where they are, and learning about sonic function and their voices, and how we relate.

For me music becomes an intermediary, a point of translation, of one experience of a place and another voice and a way of understanding, through music, and intimating what might be going on in their minds.

Technology is this mediating aspect to those experiences—we record the sounds. There’s nothing more beautiful than waking up at three in the morning, going out and just sitting in a forest and listening to everything come alive; it sort of affirms your own liveliness and vibrancy. Over the last hundred years or so, we can now capture these sounds with recording devices. We can revisit them in a way that wasn’t possible. As I negotiate the technology and relationship to natural sound, and soundscape into music, to me there’s a continuum of the music of the spheres. By working with music, it allows me and the people I’m working with—like Kronos—to understand some of the fabric of that, the connective tissue that binds us all together as living creatures and beings on this planet. The excitement is that technology gives us access to a realm of sound that in real time goes by so quickly. We can hold it in our mind’s ear for a little bit longer. We can revisit and reflect in a way that simply wasn’t possible one hundred years ago.

LH: For you, is there a boundary between music and noise, and if so, what is it?

DQ: I guess I’m very much a child of my time, but for me, the boundaries between noise and music were really effaced beginning with Luigi Russolo and the Futurists a hundred years ago. When you think about The Art of Noises—what a phenomenal essay. And then John Cage’s Credo in US brought that into another framing. We’ve been liberated from that distinction, and to me, it parallels the effacing of the boundary between nature and man. We are nature, wherever we are, we are part of nature, not apart from it. In that continuum—music and noise—I think it’s a question of perception and intention, and it’s been tremendously liberating to arrive at a different reckoning of the sounding world around us. It isn’t limited to instruments; it’s about a broadening of perceptions about relationships in the world and the cosmic resonance that’s out there. I feel that I’m singularly fortunate to have been born in this time, to have inherited the legacy of people like Luigi Russolo, of John Cage, of Karlheinz Stockhausen, who opened the doors for the rest of us to explore and think beyond “Is this music or is this noise?” There was a conversation last night with Kronos about “high art” and “low art”; art music and popular music. Music is music. Those are social and class distinctions, really, that have nothing to do with music. Similarly, noise to music—again, it depends on your intentionality around a sonic experience.

LH: Can you give me an idea of the timeline for Polar Suite? Was this piece the reason you went to record, or was the piece conceived after that?

DQ: Polar Suite is the outgrowth of more than 15 years of work around polar soundscapes. It goes back to my childhood—I grew up in Sweden, Iceland, Canada, and Northern Scotland, so I’ve always been part of that cold experience, like Glenn Gould’s idea of “North.” That’s been my life. I had always been interested in Antarctica from the time I was a child, reading Mr. Popper’s Penguins. (Never underestimate the power of childhood enthusiasm.) Then I had a teacher in 6th grade who used to read to us after lunch, and one of the books she read to us was Alfred Lansing’s account of the Shackleton expedition, the ill-fated endurance voyage. And that piqued my interest. It took another 30 years or so for me to get to the ice, to figure out a way to get down there. But I’d always been interested and intrigued by natural sound—possibly because we moved a lot, my father was a diplomat. So that’s the preamble.

I went down with open ears and was excited by listening and recording.

Certainly as a composer, I was always thinking this would be wonderful musically somehow. I think when I heard Weddell seals for the first time, their underwater calls, it was not only an epiphany, but a crossroads in my life as a composer. I’d been dedicated to the studio and electronic music to arrive at new sounds and sonic textures, and then, my gosh! You hear these creatures and it sounded like old-school Stockhausen from the ‘50s. I was reminded of works like Kontakte. So I had some thinking to do, I had arrived at a place where I found (on the ice and under the ice) sounds I would never have imagined in a studio. In my mind’s ear I’d always had strings somehow; I had built wind harps when I was on the ice.

I’d been a Kronos fan since the ‘80s—I think that’s the first time I saw them live. I’d always had in the back of my head: wouldn’t it be great if we could do something. It was really a coincidence. David Harrington had picked up my Antarctica CD and used it when he was doing DJ work—a sidebar to his life with Kronos. He’s remarkably energetic and intellectually curious and does all sorts of things. He called me one day out of the blue and we had a wonderful conversation about the nature of music and nature. And he said we should do something together. The years kind of drifted by, and then the opportunity coalesced around my appointment at Syracuse University—the timing and synchronicity with the interest in a broader cultural level with the International Polar Year a couple of years ago, and the interest in climate change. One thing led to another, and Polar Suite evolved as a conversation over the last couple of years.

In earnest, we began when I met Keith McMillen through David Harrington in March of 2010 when the quartet was doing a residency at Carnegie Hall. Keith gave a demonstration. Then it was really David who orchestrated the relationship. He said, “One thing we were thinking about your work in electronics is that you should meet Keith McMillen, who’s developed this new bow. Wouldn’t it be great if we all worked together on this.” And that was the genesis on it.

There was a process of refining what Keith had been developing over the course of five years with this bow—65 iterations to the bow you heard in performance the other night, and that’s how it evolved over the period of the last year and a half. So there was the composition side, the tech side, but all of these went hand-in-hand. I manipulated the hundreds of hours of field recordings I have from these places to arrive at a palette that suited the quartet and through a series of rehearsals, several days—I’d fly out to San Francisco when they came off tour, we’d work for a few days in the studio, and we’d play. Remember, we play music. I think it’s an important thing, often an oversight, and without that serious playfulness, it would have been a very different process. We were finding each other, and finding that common ground with respect to the material. So that’s how it evolved over time, fairly intensively from March up until the premiere. Whenever we could regroup, Keith and his designers would madly rework software based on every rehearsal. The conversation was really this wonderful 3-way triangulation of energy and sensitivity that brought the piece to fruition. That’s the long and the short of it.

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