Archive for the “Essays” Category

[Ed. Note -- Jeff Harrington has been doing the composer-promotion thing on the web just about as early as anyone could. Now working out of France, Jeff has written a bit about his own long experience, and wanted to share that with you all.]

Here’s a short article I wrote upon request from somebody teaching a course in Digital Musicianship.  I offer it as a way to encourage discussion about the costs and benefits of the free culture model.  Please pardon the informal nature of it…

My strategy… is basically to get my music into as many people’s hands as possible without expectations of renumeration. What happened to my wife and I in the early 80′s informed the process where I invented the free culture system.

We’d both had to drop out of college, me from Juilliard and Elsie from Pratt because of money problems. We were quite angry about this and started a street art project. This was 1982. At the same time we started showing Elsie’s paintings on the street in the West Village, right on Spring Street to be exact in the heart of Soho. We showed these huge paintings with a sign saying, “Not for Sale.”

This was pretty shocking to people and we started getting more and more interested in seeing where that could take us. We created series of non-destructive art works in chalk and with rubber stamps and displayed them all over NYC. Eventually, we became so famous (or infamous) that we started a whole mini-art movement in NYC and started receiving death threats… we ended up having to flee NYC, broke and regroup in New Orleans.

In New Orleans we continued giving our art away through the mail art networks. These were exchanges where you’d send a piece of art to somebody and then they’d send you something back. These turned into zines eventually, and from there into multiples and even gallery shows. When the computer networks started up in the early 80′s with BBS’s it was a natural progression to take our art give-away there.

I was probably the first serious artist to use the BBS system to distribute art, although I’m sure there were a few more; nobody at the time seemed to have come from the street art/mail art networks. I uploaded the score (as a set of GIF images) to my Variations for String Quartet onto a BBS in 1987 which is probably the earliest music give away. I started distributing MIDI files of my pieces around this time. It was very interesting to upload a MIDI file or a graphic and then watch it get uploaded by a fan to another site. At about the same time I started embedding my music into synthesizer patch downloads. I first distributed my Acid Bach series as a component of a synthesizer patch library I created for the purpose of having a compelling download. That is, I designed the patch library so that people would want it and coincidentally listen to my music. This way they’d have a high quality musical experience akin to the MP3 playback today through the use of the same synthesizer. Read the rest of this entry »

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[Ed. note -- please welcome a new contributor to S21, composer Joseph Dangerfield.  As a Fulbright Scholar, Joe spent time at both the Moscow Conservatory and Maastricht Conservatorium, and is currently Assistant Professor at Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.]

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The act of composition, by which I mean the act of artistic creation, is, in reality, very private.  We all have private thoughts and ideas, some of which we share with others; some we keep to ourselves.  During the conception of those ideas, do we share our train of thought with others?  I would say, not typically.  So, why was I worrying about what an audience might think of a piece that I had not yet written?  Upon careful reflection of the question, my answer astounded me: I considered the audience in the early stages of my work because the academic environment in which I was typically surrounded virtually demanded it.  In other words, I felt the subconscious need to “please” the local academy with my work, for various reasons.  While lecturing and composing on a Fulbright Grant in Europe (2009-10), I felt no need to consider the academy, the audience, even in a peripheral sense, or anyone else.  I was able to focus on my musical and artistic intentions, and compose while thinking only of myself and the performers for whom I was writing.  The end result was a piece that I am very proud of, which received an exceptional performance, and an outstanding response from the audience.

While abroad, I also did a lot of reading, which I normally cannot find the time to do in the typical academic year. However, the most engaging book I encountered this year was Glenn Watkins’, The Gesualdo Hex.  One of the passages that I found particularly enlightening, with regard to my current quandary, was about composers and serialism, and how the discussion about the merits of such a doctrinaire system ensued during the 1950′s and 60′s.

Watkins begins by stating that Schoenberg, after the period of composition for which he was strictly “serial,” became less interested in allowing the system to control what he wrote, referencing Schoenberg’s late style, and his lengthy correspondence with Leibowitz.[1] The communications between them are quite telling, and give an excellent insight into Schoenberg and his music.  Watkins further provides evidence that Boulez was only interested in strict serialism for approximately two years (1950-52), following which he warned composers against such ” arithmetic masturbation.”[2] Berio eventually also agreed with this statement saying that serialism lead to a “tendency to deal with formalities rather than substance.”[3] Watkins goes on to state that according to William Bolcom, “Milton Babbitt’s scientism in the United States came from a different perspective that ultimately congealed in the university composer, who was challenged to provide an intellectual cachet to match that of engineering, philosophy, or science departments.” Watkins further quotes Bolcom: “Composition had to become ‘intellectually respectable’…and serialism felt like science.”[4] Watkins concludes by providing other examples of composers who went through a window of system-controlled composition to find their unique voice.  One element that appears to be consistent is that each composer at one point determined that a system was not a replacement for artistic creativity, rather it was one useful tool that could be changed and manipulated to meet one’s artistic needs.

Obviously, there are a lot of similarities between Watkins’ statements and the internal debate that I was having, which led me to the following questions:

1)    Are we as composers, today, pressured to write in a particular way or ‘style’ that is perpetuated by the academy, our teachers, or even the audience?

2)    If so, how do we overcome the pressure, use what we find relevant, and set out to create an art that is uniquely our own?

Now before you say: “Yes, yes, Joe.  We are well aware that serialism can be arithmetically stifling,” I want to point out that the most interesting part of my current conundrum is that the pressure that I feel at home is not to write music of the so-called avant-garde, which I like, but to write more conservative music.  At the college where I am currently an assistant professor, concerts of contemporary music receive an audience of maybe twenty; most of them begrudging students that are there to meet specific course requirements.  I am told that is because it is a “conservative community,” and no one is interested in and/or understands new music.  That statement concerns me as an educator; others are willing to simply allow that moniker to be the reason for not trying to expand the community’s understanding of ‘music as art.’  For instance, while living in Cologne, Germany last year, I worked with German composer/conductor Robert H.P. Platz, a protégé of Karlheinz Stockhausen.  The city of Cologne is a beacon for contemporary music.  There are concerts presented daily, and usually, to full halls.  Robert and I had several discussions about music, modernity, and how fortunate he was to reside in such a place.  He told me that “Cologne was not always a center for new music – It is so now due to the forty years that Stockhausen worked to educate the public.  He also invited innumerable composers to Cologne for concerts, thereby exposing everyone to a variety of new music.  Now there is a network in Cologne that is sustainable.” 

I had a similar experience working at the Moscow Conservatory with Ukrainian-born Russian composer Vladimir Tarnopolski and the Ensemble Studio New Music.  Tarnopolski, now a professor of composition at the conservatory, was once a student of Edison Denisov.  After Denisov’s departure from Moscow to Paris, due to the stifling atmosphere created by the totalitarian regime, Tarnopolski worked tirelessly to bring contemporary music to the forefront of the Russian consciousness; A difficult task following the Soviet era.  In 1989, he initiated the Association of Contemporary Music in Moscow.  In 1993, he formed the Centre for Contemporary Music in Moscow, and its premiere ensemble, the Ensemble Studio New Music.  The conservatory even created a special department to house the centre and the ensemble.  In 1994 Tarnopolski began an annual festival of international music called the Moscow Forum, the main focus of which is the integration of Eastern European contemporary music with contemporary music from Western countries.  What began as a single-minded effort is now a tireless force.  The Centre, its ensemble, and the festival all enjoy enormous success, and perform works by some of today’s most interesting and vibrant composers.

Now that I am back in America, I have renewed hope and vigor, and a healthy dose of self-confidence, which I believe I allowed to wane over the past few years.  A colleague and I have formed a new ensemble, called ensemble: Périphérie, whose mission is to promote contemporary music by presenting stimulating and inspiring concerts of new chamber works, by commissioning new works from both emerging and established composers, and by inviting audiences to join us in recognizing great art of our time. One of the primary goals of ensemble: Périphérie is to bring greater exposure to composers and works that are underperformed and neglected–that is, music that lies on the periphery.  Our hope is, that with time and effort, we will be able to help bring contemporary music to the forefront of American culture, in the same way that contemporary art has enjoyed prominence here. 

for more information about ensemble: Périphérie, please visit our website: http://www.ensembleperipherie.com/Index.htm  for more information on Joseph Dangerfield, please visit: http://www.josephdangerfield.com/index3.html or his blog: http://domainemusical.wordpress.com/

[1] Glenn Watkins, The Gesualdo Hex, (Norton, 2010), p. 125-128.

[2] Michael Hicks, “Exorcism and Epiphany: Luciano Berio’s Nones,” Perspectives of New Music 27 (1989): 254.

[3] Luciano Berio, “Meditation on a Twelve-Tone Horse,” Christian Science Monitor, 15 July 1968.

[4] Watkins, The Gesualdo Hex, (Norton, 2010), p. 125.

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[Ed. -- An early joiner at s21, composer Armando Bayolo has been off on his own personal career adventure for a while now. Firmly planted in Washington D.C., teaching and running his own ensemble, we asked if he'd like to share some of his recent experiences, and maybe give us an occasional D.C. update.  Armando has kindly penned this introduction:]

I am a composer.

That doesn’t mean what it used to mean, however.  Webster’s Online defines “composer” as “one that composes; especially: a person who writes music.”  This is certainly true; a composer writes music.  But a composer, at least if  s/he expects to have anything like a career as a composer, is often, if not always, forced to be many things.

What are we as composers?  Besides writing music — which is the central and most important activity to my own work as a musician — I teach music theory at one of the east coast’s oldest conservatories, I am (or was, as this activity has unfortunately taken a back seat recently) a pianist, a conductor, a writer and impresario.  I have also had to take on a role as a manager and publisher for my own work (If I am not for myself, as Rabbi Hillel said, who will be for me?).  This is nothing new, of course, as composers going back at least as far as Beethoven complained about all of the activities essential to being allowed to make music for a living that inherently get in the way of the process of making music (and this is certainly not exclusive to composers!). One role that is perhaps less common which I’ve undertaken in the last five years is that of advocate for other composers through my work as conductor and Artistic Director of Great Noise Ensemble.

In 2005 I found myself at a bit of a crossroads.  Throughout my student years I expected my career to follow the more typical route of settling into an academic position after finishing my graduate studies.  After a brief stint as a visiting professor in Portland, Oregon, and thanks to various factors finding myself without a regular teaching job, my family and I resettled in suburban Washington, D.C. where my wife grew up.  The early years before the move weren’t unproductive, but they were a critical and difficult time — a time, I now know, which every creative artist faces at one point or another.  In my case I realized that, rather than waiting to see “where I would land”, I’d try founding a new music ensemble (something I’d been wanting to do since graduate school) within the context of an academic program. Why not look for like-minded people in the area, see if we could put together some concerts and see where that would take us?

In the summer of 2005 I placed a classified ad on Craigslist.com with a sort of loose vision, a list of composers I would like to perform (Andriessen, Adams, Ligeti, etc.) and the idea that we should treat it a bit as a garage band and see where it would take us.  About seven people answered that ad, of which about four or five came to the informational meeting a month later… Except that those four people had spread the word and brought friends, so we had more like nine people at the first meeting.  The same thing happened at the next meeting and, in the end, we ended up with a full sinfonietta of about 16 instrumentalists plus two singers.

Great Noise Ensemble is about to wrap up its fifth season on April 30.  Our sixth season begins in October with the most ambitious project we have ever undertaken, a rare performance of Louis Andriessen’s 1984-88 “opera,” De Materie.  Great Noise will be the first ensemble of American professional musicians to perform this piece.  It was a dream and a hope of mine to do this piece, and, frankly, I never thought we would be in a position to perform it so early in our history.  The rest of the season will see performances of large and small works by established AND emerging composers, as well as readings of works in progress by students at the Catholic University of America (where we’ve been in residence since 2008).

Great Noise Ensemble has become as central to my work as a musician as my own composition and I see it, along with my teaching activities, as an important responsibility of being a successful American composer.  (This notion of being a successful composer is itself odd and one with which I have yet to come to terms, since success as a composer is not necessarily linked, in our world, with financial/material success.  But that is a topic for another essay.)  It is not just my music that matters.  All contemporary concert music (or art music; I don’t like the label “classical” and, while I’ve been lumped within the “alt-classical” movement by certain critics, I’m not 100% comfortable with that term either) is important.  It reflects the soul of our nation, even while remaining largely hidden behind much more commercially viable musics.  Composers (and performers) are all in this together.

I see my role in American music, such as it is, as being similar to a guerrilla fighter.  I operate under the radar, merging between concerts with the (academic) mainstream only to emerge, every six weeks or so, to strike another salvo on behalf of contemporary art music.  In this small way I hope to be part of the change I see happening (that must happen if our musical institutions are to survive) in American concert music every day.  And so I co-opt a phrase from one of recent history’s most polemically polarizing figures when I say, “hasta la victoria, siempre!”

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In London’s Standpoint magazine, tenor Ian Bostridge has a short essay on some of the experiential and philosophical aspects of musical time, at least as he feels it. I think he overreaches a bit in what he credits late Romaticism with attempting, and I’ve always been leery of the whole “music is a language” thing. But it’s a worthwhile read, and a fast one at that; and there are a number of relatively good comments already, just below the article. Take a peek.

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