What is the function of a click track? What is its value? I’ve started to question the value and relevance of particular media configurations of electroacoustic music. By media configurations, I mean the technical setup used in the realization of a piece of music. I want to avoid the term genre. Electroacoustic music is not a genre. It’s a technical label and nothing more. Composers can write electroacoustic music in any number of genres, but more to the point they may employ any number of media configurations. Many are common and recurring, and many have become standard practice at an electroacoustic concert.
Many of these configurations are the by-products of a much more limited technological age. Yet many composers still used these dated configurations. They compose music with material which is fixed. In my eyes (and ears), material which is fixed is inherently at odds with the music that requires a human performer. Nothing about a live, human performance is fixed. It unfolds in real time and can never be directly replicated. A click track, on the other hand, is as fixed as it gets.
To return to the original question: what is the function of a click track? It functions to allow a performer to stay in time with a fixed media component that would have otherwise been deemed too difficult to follow and remain in synch with. The click track controls time. It is a metronome that found its way into the concert hall, and to my surprise it is rarely met with any criticism.
If you’re writing a piece for a human performer that requires such precise timing as to call for an actual metronome during the performance, have you ever stopped to ask yourself “why am I even writing this for a human?” The truth is, you aren’t. You’re writing for computer. Or perhaps to phrase it differently, you’re writing a piece for computer and a human doing their best to act like a computer. You’re writing a piece in which time is controlled completely. You’re writing music which leaves less room for expressive quality than I care for.
What does the performer bring to the table in this real time performance? What do they lose as a result of the media being fixed. They lose the ability to control time. A performer can bring nuance, gesture, phrasing, articulation, dynamics, and more to the realization of the piece. These facets are important beyond measure. But I say that when a performer is stripped of their ability to control time, to control time dynamically, and to control time expressively, that we have removed the fundamentally most important human quality of music performance.
Imagine attending a concert of a Beethoven symphony and seeing the conductor slide on a pair of headphones just before beginning. Imagine a Bach Cello Suite performed with a click track. What if in the moment of performance an instinct exists to slow down as a phrase is approached, or to speed up to accentuate a gesture? The click track would destroy this instinct. These hard won instincts exist in every performer who has ever been subject to a click track, and click tracks are denying them. Take this scenario one step further, and imagine if each and every performance of a work by Beethoven or Bach used the same click track. If this were the case, what would be the value of live music? Click tracks are not expanding the sonic possibilities of music, they are limiting the human element of what we do.
The click track is the most militant example of time being taken away from performers, but it does not stop here. Any piece in which media is fixed presents similar problems on an ever difficult to define continuum. A continuum filled with grey areas. I’ll save that topic for a future post, but in the meantime I’d encourage others to reevaluate the current media configurations being used in the realization of electroacoustic music. Create music in which the computer responds to the human, not the other way around.
The following is a response to a presentation given in my music psychology class by my friend and colleague Bruce McFarland. Bruce’s presentation related to the decline in classical concert attendance.
I should begin by stating that I greatly enjoyed Bruce’s presentation on concert attendance in recent decades. It was interesting to consider some of the factors which may be leading to the decline in attendance. Many of these factors were ones I hadn’t considered, and each could warrant an entire paper’s worth of research. I write this response not to argue, but rather to express some thoughts and opinions we simply didn’t have time to get into during class.
At the very end of his presentation, Bruce said something in his conclusion that struck me as rather non-sequitur. I’m not sure he really meant to say this, and perhaps he didn’t realize exactly what he was implying, but to paraphrase it, he said something like this: "Concert attendance is down, so what can composers do to change this? Compose music with melody and a perceivable pulse. That’s what people want to hear. Percy Grainger’s Lincolnshire Posy is one of the greatest pieces of all time, and it managed to be likable and do all sorts of new things with rhythm and timbre.”
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t take some personal issue with that notion, as Bruce’s entire presentation had nothing to do with modern composers or composition. Yet in a single sentence he wrapped up all of the problems currently inhibiting concert attendance and blamed them on composers. Not a single other solution was offered as to how to improve the decline in concert attendance, nor had modern composition ever been mentioned prior in his presentation as a contributor to concert attendance.
The “blame” (and I don’t like that term) can be spread just about anywhere if you try hard enough. I could blame concert attendance on modernity, the borderline ancient ritual that a classical concert is, global warming, ISIS, poor management of the ensemble, bloated salaries of conductors and musicians, poor marketing, the awesome lineup that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a fundamental shift in society as to what we view as entertainment, Netflix, Game of Thrones, and especially Obama.
Of all possible factors to blame for the decline of concert attendance, the one which I struggle the most with is modern composition. Bruce should agree, as his presentation all but proves this point. Firstly, he argued multiple times that people prefer to know the music they are paying to see. They attend concerts to see Mahler, Beethoven, Mozart, Vivaldi. How can we be to blame if people are already biased against new music on the concert? If people only want to hear music they already know, then composers have lost the battle before we ever arrive on the field. Are we supposed to write music that sounds like Mahler or Beethoven?
Secondly, and on that same note, very little new music is performed in the first place. It’s not as though new music performances have been on the rise in recent decades. If that was the case then a correlation might be seen between concert attendance and the presence of new music, but no such correlation can be argued.
Lastly, Bruce only mentioned a single piece pf music in his entire presentation: Lincolnshire Posy. This was his example for ‘new music’ being accessible yet also innovative and forward looking. Was Lincolnshire Posy forward looking? Given it was composed decades after The Rite of Spring I would hardly say so. Not to mention Lincolnshire Posy is 80 years old. What does it possibly have to do with the current situation of modern composition in the concert hall? If Bruce’s aim was to say that new music can be both liked by audiences and forward looking, then he needs to reevaluate his stance based on the music of that last 80 years. In order to be new and forward looking you can’t ignore Ligeti, Carter, Stockhausen, Boulez, Crumb, etc.
This is no longer the 18th century. To paraphrase Schoenberg, "if it is for all it is not art, and if it is art it is not for all.” As painful as it is to say, perhaps the classical orchestra simply has no function anymore, at least not as a professional, full-time entity which charges admission. The orchestra used to exist as it was the only way to hear orchestral music. Modern recording technology has done away with that, and all of the great pieces from centuries prior have been recorded and recorded again (and again and again and again). So it would actually make sense for orchestras to perform almost exclusively new music as there exists no other way to hear it!
Just to clarify, I want the orchestra as an establishment of music to continue for the longevity of human history. Many know the Minnesota Orchestra is near and dear to my heart, and I wouldn’t trade my concert listening experiences with them for the world. However, it’s clear that something needs to change. Unlike Bruce, however, I don’t feel it is composers that need to do the changing.
The reason I’m saying all of this is because I think Bruce’s statement at the end of his presentation is a dangerous one. It’s a viewpoint that can cause a fear of new art. A desire to avoid new art. A desire to give anything less than your full attention to new music. Is all new music great? Not at all, in fact I get bored with the vast majority of it, but I’d caution telling composers to write the kind of music audience members want. To do so would prevent art from growing. Beethoven didn’t write the kind of music people wanted, but as soon as they heard it they couldn’t live without it.
Practicing an instrument, composing music, and lifting weights are very much the same mental and physical process (assuming you do them correctly). Of course only one of these three activities takes up a substantial amount of my time these days: weightlifting (I kid).
More often than not it surprises people to learn that weightlifting is one of my favorites hobbies (likely because I have the natural physique of Gumby on Atkins). In actuality, I’ve had some sort of regular physical fitness routine for most of my life. When I was in middle school and high school I swam competitively, in college I ran long distance, and in graduate school I started doing body-weight exercises and began to learn the basics of weight training. For the past year, however, I’ve focused almost exclusively on strength training. What exactly is strength training, and how does it correlate to my musical endeavors?
Strength training is the process of lifting weights with the primary goal of increasing how much mass you can move, not increasing the size of your muscles nor the attainment of a particular physique as seen in bodybuilding.
There seems to be a clear divide between practicality and aesthetics in lifting weights, but in reality there is far more overlap. While a bodybuilder’s ultimate goal remains an aesthetic one they will often build massive amounts of strength in that process. A strength trainer may focus on lifting more and more weight regardless of physique, yet they will undoubtedly build muscle along the way.
How then, does this relate to composing music or practicing an instrument? The similarity is two-fold: process and practicality.
Perhaps this process can best be explained through the practice of music making which most of us learn first: playing an instrument. I truly wish I had learned earlier in life how to properly practice an instrument. I was never terrible at practicing, but I often shrugged a passage off and said “meh, it’s good enough.” I never realized the true level of mental and physical discipline required to master an instrument. In recent years I’ve come to improve my ability to focus on the task at hand. I recall in the first theory class I took with Per Broman at BGSU. He discussed the value of putting your complete attention and highest level of focus towards our readings. This of course makes perfect sense, as our readings were Caplin’s theories of sonata form, and they demand your fullest attention to be properly understood.
This same degree of attention is required to properly practice an instrument, as well as to lift a barbell. When I’m at the gym, if I lose focus for even a moment before attempting a heavy lift, I stand almost no chance at completing the range of motion, despite the fact that my body is strong enough and capable of performing the motion. The same goes with a tricky passage on the violin. My hand may have the dexterity needed to complete that god awful triple stop, but I don’t stand a chance at completing it without having first practiced it with my fullest mental capacity.
Musicians often speak of muscle memory when referring to the learning process of a piece of music. This term isn’t really correct. It’s nervous-system memory. It applies when learning an instrument, and it especially applies when lifting a barbell. You train your body to complete a movement pattern well before you build muscle along that movement pattern. What this all boils down to is consistency. In order to complete a heavy lift or to perform a tricky passage, one must practice with their full attention with consistency, but sometimes that isn’t enough. Musicians modify the final product of the piece they’re working on by doing things like slowing it down or adding dotted rhythms to train the fingers. When weightlifting, you do the same thing. You decrease the weight to improve the movement pattern, or you focus on one portion of the exercise, often strengthening it by performing other isolation movements. The end goal is to always be making progress. If you’re reading a book, practicing an instrument, or lifting weights, you’re either making progress, or you’re not.
So let’s bring this back to composing, since that’s sort of what I’m about.
Composing is an aesthetic art form, much in the same way that performing on an instrument and listening to music are aesthetic. However, the actual process of sitting down to ‘do’ the composing is a practical process, and a grinding one at that. So perhaps it’s better to say that composing is influenced by aesthetic.
Throughout my process of slowly (and I do mean slowly) lifting more and more weight, I’ve trained my mind and body to become stronger. I’ve also becoming a stronger person overall, and this is the result of learning how to truly focus my efforts and attention on the task at hand. Practicing an instrument helped me learn all of the wrong ways to do this, reading advanced music theory taught me the importance of it, weightlifting taught me how to do it, and composing is where I now make use of it (or am at least trying to). In short, training your mind and body to lift weights trains you to compose and practice your musical endeavors more effectively. Weight lifting is just as much a mental exercise as a physical one, perhaps even more so.
If you’ve read this post to the end, perhaps I can incentivize you to hit the gym, do some deadlifting, or go for a run! And while you’re at it, pay attention to how you’re focusing your energy, it just might make you a stronger person and a greater musician!
I recently had the privilege of assisting Mike Pounds teach a course on the history of electronic music. While I’m no stranger to the history of this art, it was a fantastic and eye-opening experience to trace advancements in sonic technology over the past century. As the course progressed, I began to experiment with analog tape, modular synthesizers, and other (relatively) rudimentary techniques for electronically generating sound. Near the end of the course, I finally solidified a thought that had been floating around in my head the entire semester: electroacoustic composers have it easy today.
Before I get too far into anything, I should make an important clarifying point: I don’t believe in differentiating between ‘composers’ and ‘electroacoustic composers’. We all make music. Electroacoustic composition is a technique, not a cult. If you’ve never studied with Jonty Harrison, never heard the complete works of Denis Smalley, never spent weeks mastering a single soundfile, it’s irrelevant. If you compose music that involves electronics, then you’re an electroacoustic composer. You might be a terrible one, and studying with Jonty Harrison and listening to a fair amount of Denis Smalley might help you out a little, but I digress. I use the term in this post merely to address those who make use of technology when composing.
Mike and I taught the course using Thom Holmes’ Electronic And Experimental Music: Technology, Music, and Culture (Fourth Edition). For those who haven’t read it, I’d highly recommend it. Not only does it provide a nice survey of electronic music which can refresh you on many important names ranging from Cahill to Oram, it also introduces you to electroacoustic composers from South America, East Asia, and the Middle East (many of whom I had never encountered before this course). It also provides a surprising amount of succinctly presented technological information which can function to remind you of basic principles, or teach them in the first place.
It was around the time we were lecturing on the RCA Mark II synthesizer that I truly began to understand and appreciate the technology available at my fingertips. My own home-studio has a pair of low-end monitors, an 88-key midi controller, two condenser microphones, a two-channel audio interface, and Logic Pro X running on my 4-year old Macbook Pro.
By today’s standard’s this is nothing fancy to create music with, yet compared to the technology of even 10 years ago it looks pretty nice. Compare it to the technology of 20 years ago and my little studio outdoes just about anything available to a non-professional consumer. Go back 30 years and I’m a God. I’m no shill for Apple, but Logic Pro X alone dwarves everything that Ligeti, Stockhausen, Ussachevsky, and Babbitt had available to them in their lifetimes to create electronic sound. I can open even the most basic softsynth and create complex gestures, but more importantly I can layer, copy, splice, reverse, and EQ them to my heart’s content. I can also apply a vast gambit of plugins and effects with virtually no limitation.
Limitation is the key word here. Electroacoustic composers in decades prior were exploring new means of generating sound, often just as they were becoming available (in fact, they were often the ones inventing them). They, just as we do today, were working within the confines of the technology currently available. The difference today is that we already have it all. We have virtually no limitations to hold us back. The sonic capabilities of Garageband alone are theoretically unlimited. If you look back at the various releases, upgrades, and re-brandings of audio software from the past decade you’ll note that almost nothing has changed. The means of generating sound remain grounded in the same principles.
Composing could be considered the art of setting self-limitations. Each piece of music behaves by its own set of rules once completed. When composing with electronics in mind, the choices one must make along the way to narrow down the end result are like composing for a Mahler-sized symphony times a thousand. In addition, there seems to be such a bizarre sense of loyalty and competition amongst various pieces of software these days. I can’t go five minutes at a conference without someone telling me that PD is better than Max and vice versa. In the end, all that matters are the sonic results that one achieves. Even better is when those sonic results culminate in an engaging and meaningful piece of music. If SuperCollider helps you achieve those results, great! If you’re using Audacity and getting the same results, keep it up.
As I’ve thought more and more about this, I’ve decided to try composing pieces with extremely rigid limitations. For example, I was just communicating on facebook with my friend Jason about composing a piece in Logic using only a built-in organ synth and the arpeggiator plugin. Why not try this? Why not limit myself to these few tools and challenge myself to create something interesting? Of course, as with any self-imposed limitations, it’s of the utmost importance to know when to break them, but I find adhering to them as long as possible can yield tremendous results.
The take home message of all this? There is no excuse to not be constantly creating electronic music these days. The means are right under our fingertips every single day, and the results are immediate. You could create the musical masterpiece of the century on an iPhone with some patience and a little ingenuity. So go compose some music, and share it with me once you do!
I adore the music of Jean Sibelius. This is no secret to my friends and family. Over the years I’ve listened to every note of his music that I could get into my ears, and I’ve examined every line of his scores that I could get my hands on.
I was first introduced to his music when I was a Junior at Concordia College. Our orchestra was performing in Minneapolis, and shortly after our performance the Minnesota Orchestra took to the stage to perform a concert of Nielsen and Sibelius. I thoroughly enjoyed Nielsen’s 5th Symphony, but it was the performance of Sibelius’s 2nd which changed my life.
Over the last years I’ve often wondered why it is that I adore Sibelius’s music so much. Is it inherent? Is it learned behavior? Is it based on my previous listening experiences? Did I discover his music at just the right time? Or was it simply the fact that I lived just up the road from Osmo Vänskä and his world class group of musicians who championed Sibelius’s music better than any others? (reminder, I'm a total fanboy for Vänskä)
While to some extent all of those reasons may be true, I eventually came to the following conclusion: I believe Sibelius crafts the formal structure of his music better than anyone. I realize this is a substantial claim, and I’ll admit it’s incredibly biased towards my views on what makes the formal structure of a piece successful. This in turn raises a significant question: did Sibelius’s music conform to my beliefs on what a successful structure is, or did my views on successful structure come from listening to Sibelius? I believe it’s a combination of both, which is why the point in my musical career that I discovered Sibelius is of such importance. My mind was forming new ideas that had yet to be codified, and Sibelius’s music provided the ammunition for said codification. His music was the peanut butter to my intellectual jelly.
Back to the form though…
What do I admire about Sibelius’s formal structures? Perhaps it will be easier to explain certain aspects of music from different composers who I don’t give the same praise. The easiest example is Mahler, as he was a contemporary of Sibelius, crafted a similar symphonic output, and continued to compose in a relatively tonal sphere. Just to be clear, I’m not criticizing Mahler nor attempting to speak negatively about his music. Obviously his output stands on its own and he doesn’t need me to defend it, but I find comparisons to his music useful. And on a side note, I thoroughly enjoy listening to Mahler’s work.
If I may make use of an analogy...
If Mahler and Sibelius both built houses, I think Sibelius would have built a better structure through and through when completed, but Mahler would have a house made of nicer materials and with each room being slightly fancier than the comparative room in the Sibelius house. Mahler’s living room would be fantastic and filled with delightful furniture and a sumptuous bear rug next to the stone fireplace, but it would be awkward and convoluted to walk through. It might also not fit with the other rooms of the house as it sacrifices continuity for extravagance and lavishness. The Sibelius living room, on the other hand, would be more humble in its furnishings and design, but it would burst with feng shui and would flow with the other rooms of the house so well as to make the entire structure better than the sum of its parts.
Better than the sum of its parts… that’s the money phrase. I’ve heard the works of many composers who write fantastic ‘moments’ which are strung together to create something that just doesn’t get off the ground. This is seemingly a greater issue in the electroacoustic world, where most of my new listening occurs. As composers of electroacoustic music are traditionally viewed as ‘creating’ sounds to compose versus ‘using’ sounds which already exist, I feel that the approach to composition is very different. Having composed a large degree of music in this medium, I can attest to the truth of that statement. The compositional process can be tremendously different.
However, this does not mean the final product should inherently be structured differently. Certainly the process of composition will affect the final product of the piece along the way, but the overall approach to structure, whether composing or listening, should not vary due to the genre or medium of composition. I hear few works at electroacoustic festivals which have any sort of structure which resonates with me. I find I disagree with many of my peers when discussing what we just heard. The works which have ‘rad sounds’ or are well EQ’d are considered the highlights of the day. To me, that's like hearing 2 symphonies back to back and saying the one with more instruments was better.
I'm aware I'm in the minority on this issue, and I might take some flak from my electroacoustic colleagues. I imagine in the coming decades we'll see a move away from the aesthetic first established by electroacoustic composers in the middle of the 20th century. Schaeffer is dead, so to speak, and I believe a new approach to 'creating' and 'using' sounds is needed if electroacoustic music is going to continue to grow. This is undoubtedly why I prefer to compose for live-instruments with electronics, as it combines the new and the old much more seamlessly. If I can compose a work with the unique sounds available to me in an electroacoustic work that combines the technical mastery of the medium with a formal structure that is as satisfying as a work by Sibelius, I'll put my pencils down and close my Logic session for life!
And hey, if you disagree, that's just like, my opinion, man.
-Thanks for listening
Today I embark on what could easily be described at an out-dated form of online interaction: a blog.
Why, you might ask, do I choose to do this? And on top of that, why now?
I suppose the answer is two-fold. Firstly, I feel as though I may benefit from a routine of compiling and codifying my musical thoughts. This blog could provide a chance for me to dictate the many unspoken thoughts, concerns, and feelings I have on music, composing, and my life in general. In other words, it's very much for me. I won't go so far as to say 'who cares if you listen?', but I will say I don't expect it.
On that note, however, the second motivation for writing this blog is in fact for others to read. If not for this, a simple journal would suffice. I hope this blog can be a source of musical and artistic discussion amongst myself and my peers. I imagine my friends like Colleen, Jon, Jason, Tom, Andrew, Cory, Elainie, Mike, Keith, and others might actually enjoy hearing what I have to say now and again.
Those of you who know me well will certainly be familiar with my somewhat blunt nature. I hope this transitions well to the blog/written-word arena, and I hope if any of you respond in the future that you will be equally as blunt on your thoughts and feelings.
Stay tuned, I'll post somewhat regularly, and I'll be sure to share to facebook so you're aware of new posts.
- Thanks for listening