Are You “Serious”?

The Romans put it this way: de gustibus non disputandum est. In English, “There’s no arguing over matters of taste.” Of course, we often engage in such arguments, even though doing so is pointless.

My thoughts about this were triggered by a discussion of music, but they seem to relate somewhat to writing too, so I’m going to put my rambling, incoherent commentary into this, my mostly-about-writing blog. The connections, such as they are, will appear further down the page.

A small minority of music lovers, found primarily but not exclusively in university music departments, is passionately dedicated to the composition and enjoyment (if that’s the right word) of music that is ugly and difficult. Those who love the stuff don’t consider it ugly, of course. If pressed, they may admit that it’s difficult, or at least that it’s an acquired taste. The phrase “acquired taste” unpacks to mean, “If you had listened to as much of this music as I have, and knew as much about it as I do, you’d love it too.” This way of looking at it puts the cart before the horse, though. I suspect that listeners need already to have an affinity for ugly, difficult music in order to get very far with listening to or learning about it. Or at least, those who are introduced to it for the first time need to be motivated by a desire of some sort — perhaps the desire for a good grade, or the desire to be surrounded by sounds that express their chaotic, dystopian view of the world.

Meanwhile, most lovers of classical music are happy to subsist on a steady diet of Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms, with occasional side dishes of Vivaldi, Faure, and Debussy. I had the temerity to suggest to a couple of my Facebook friends that there are reasons for this, and that the reasons are rooted not in listeners’ familiarity with the standard canon of classical music, nor in a conservative approach to culture, but rather in the nature of the human nervous system. Our capacity to understand music, it seems to me, relies heavily on our ability to perceive musical patterns, and to store them in short-term memory so that their relations to other patterns can be examined retrospectively.

Where music has no perceptible patterns, it cannot be understood. It cannot properly be said to be saying anything. It can express incoherence, rage, bafflement, or ennui, but not much else.

This way of looking at music, which seems quite obvious to me, gave offense to the people I was conversing with. One of them responded, I have to say, rather abusively. He felt it necessary to insult me for having denigrated his beloved art form.

Needless to say, this is not how an intellectual discourse should be conducted. If I’m wrong about how music is perceived (or about how ugly, difficult music is perceived), then fine — please show me where I have erred. Insulting me does not allow me to amend my thinking.

Part of the problem is that when a group of people shares a passionate interest in something, be it a religion, a genre of music, a favorite author, or the success of a sports team, those people tend to look down on those who don’t share their passion. They may react to those who feel differently in any of several ways — by dismissing the outsiders as ignorant, by getting angry at them, or simply by huddling together in their feeling of superiority. If they understand, in some dim subconscious way, that the outsiders have a valid point of view, they’re more likely to get defensive and angry in order to preserve the supposed integrity of their view. This is why fans of opposing soccer teams start riots. On some level, the rioting fans understand that their beloved team is exactly like the other team in every respect.

I think that was what was happening today — not the soccer fans part, that was an aside; I mean the defensive in-group part. I think the fellow who felt it necessary to insult me knows, though he would never admit it, that the music he likes is ugly, difficult, and basically meaningless. That it’s rubbish. If he were comfortable with his love of that music, I don’t think he would have reacted that way. If someone says to me that Bach or Haydn is boring and meaningless, I don’t find it necessary to belittle their intelligence or dismiss them as misguided. I don’t hurl bricks, either real or metaphorical, at them. I just smile and move on.

I don’t find it necessary to display an emotional attachment to this music, because its value is simply obvious. Yes, your enjoyment will be vastly improved if you know more about it and listen to more of it, but its value and meaning are right there, in the dots on the page. No defense of Bach, Haydn, or Mozart is needed.

Instrumental music is a peculiar art form in that, with a few isolated exceptions such as Saint-Saens’s Carnival of the Animals, it’s entirely abstract. (We’ll leave opera out of this discussion, for purposes of clarity.) For this reason, a piece of music does rely on the listener to understand the idioms that make up its style. Writing in general, and storytelling in particular, is not abstract in that way. One could tell the same story (say, the story of Romeo and Juliet) in a dozen wildly different idioms, and it would still be exactly the same story. A story is not about its idioms or style in the way that a piece of music is.

You could, of course, arrange a piece of classical music — let’s say Beethoven’s Third Symphony — for synthesizers, or a saxophone septet, or a ukulele band, or even a sufficiently virtuosic doo-wop vocal ensemble. It would still be recognizably the same piece. You couldn’t do the same thing with a piece of difficult modern music that relies on sonorities (masses of crash cymbals played with mallets, say) for its effect, because sonorities don’t translate in the same way.

Difficult “modern” writing is so much less regarded and less common than difficult “modern” music. If you aren’t telling a meaningful story in a comprehensible way, readers will toss your book aside. James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is perhaps the best known example of modern writing. It’s impenetrable — and it has inspired no imitators at all. Outside of university courses on modern literature, has anybody ever read Finnegans Wake? I doubt it. Why would anybody bother?

But because music is abstract to begin with, composers who feel a need to venture deeper into abstraction have no obvious anchor to hold them back. Anything goes.

If we’re going to blame someone for this deplorable trend, I suppose we have to blame Beethoven. I love his music — but his influence over 19th century classical composition could hardly be overestimated. Beethoven popularized the notion that the greatest music was music that overthrew the earlier conventions of music — that went further. That broke new ground. That revolutionized the art form.

He himself did all that. It was the age of revolution. The American and French Revolutions were fresh news, and the Romantic movement in literature, with its idolization of the Hero, was building up steam. Beethoven’s stance was heroic. He revolted against the polite conventions of the music of the preceding generation, and did a spectacular job of it.

For more than a hundred years after Beethoven’s death, classical composers were gripped with the belief that to be significant as artists, they had to produce work that was new and different and revolutionary. That they had to break fresh ground. Within the confines of the classical style, that became more and more difficult, and eventually their efforts became absurd. Schoenberg jettisoned harmony theory in favor of the 12-tone row, a sterile effort that today is taken seriously only by a few diehards. John Cage went even further, discarding the formal restrictions of serialism, harmony, and form in favor of complete randomness. Cage’s music cannot be comprehended, because it doesn’t say anything. It was meticulously designed so as to destroy any attempt to understand it.

Well, that was certainly revolutionary, wasn’t it? Arguably it was deeply insulting to listeners … but it was revolutionary, no doubt about that. As H. G. Wells said, “If anything is possible, then nothing is interesting.” Cage’s early music is interesting; his later work is not.

While Schoenberg was busily bemoaning the death of tonality, of course, jazz musicians on the other side of the ocean hadn’t received the memo. They were joyously creating entirely new kinds of music that were entirely tonal — that used traditional chord progressions in ways that had never before been imagined. Schoenberg had crawled out on a limb and then sawed it off.

This is one of the problems with the culture of modern “serious” classical music. It insists on taking itself seriously, and as a result it has to ignore everything that has happened in pop music for the past 75 years. Not all classical composers have fallen into this trap, of course. In the 1920s, Stravinsky and other composers in Paris were well aware of American jazz, as was Aaron Copland. Coming from the other direction, Frank Zappa fearlessly shuffled the abstract sonorities of Edgard Varese into doo-wop and progressive rock. Crossovers tend to work well! But insisting that your music be entirely new and groundbreaking is a recipe for failure and obscurity. New is not necessarily better than old. The golden ideal of progress has, in recent years, been revealed as a sham and a grave danger.

I’m reminded of a pithy observation made some years ago by a blues guitarist named Big Bill Broonzy. (I once asked Chris Strachwitz of Arhoolie Records who had said it. He told me it was Broonzy.) Broonzy was once interviewed by a white musicologist. This was in the 1950s, and we may imagine, if we like, that the musicologist was from Harvard and was wearing glasses with black rims. The fellow, whoever he was, said, “Tell me, Mr. Broonzy — do you consider your blues a form of folk music?”

Broonzy thought for a moment and replied, “It’s all folk music. I never heard a horse sing none of it.” Leaving aside the deft way the guitarist deflected a racist question, we’re left with an important truth: It’s all folk music! Beethoven is folk music, and so are Varese and Xenakis. That being the case, there’s no pedestal on which to place “serious” classical music of the difficult variety. It’s all folk music. And if you can’t walk out of the dance hall whistling the tune, let’s face it: It’s a pretty pathetic excuse for folk music.

No, you don’t have to compose music that sounds like Haydn or hip-hop, nor to write novels that read like Ian Fleming or Jacqueline Susann, nor to paint the way Rembrandt did, in order to produce work that is interesting. But it is necessary to pursue meaning, and to produce work whose meanings can be comprehended by reasonably attentive listeners, readers, or viewers. By folks.

Unfortunately, the world of “serious” classical music seems to be infested by poseurs who find that challenge too difficult, or at any rate uncongenial. It’s not exactly true that Milton Babbitt wrote an essay called “Who Cares If You Listen?” That title was added to the essay by the editors of High Fidelity magazine. His title was “The Composer As Specialist.” But in applying that headline they weren’t entirely ignoring what Babbitt was saying. As the entry in wikipedia puts it, “Babbitt’s suggestion in the article for the composer of ‘advanced music’ is ‘total, resolute, and voluntary withdrawal from this public world to one of private performance.'”

As a footnote, Babbitt’s notorious article was published in 1958, the same year Bill Broonzy died.

The world of jazz and pop music doesn’t suffer from this isolationist attitude. Nor is it of much concern among writers of fiction. Writers of fiction understand that if you write gibberish, nobody is going to read your work. Some writers manage to find deep meanings, others are satisfied with shallow platitudes, but word salad is not highly regarded. A mash-up of Romeo & Juliet with Oliver Twist and The Sun Also Rises, sentences and single words chosen at random — or not at random but according to some arcane formula — and tossed into a blender on their way to the printed page, is not going to gain you any followers. Or at least, you’ll have to forgive me if I hope it doesn’t.

I have better things to do than listen to music that adamantly refuses to speak to me. And it’s really quite pointless for anybody to try to convince me that a piece by a “serious” composer of difficult noise music is as meaningful as a string quartet by Haydn. It just isn’t. If you think it is, you’ve redefined the word “meaningful” in a way that makes it meaningless.

That way madness lies.

Something’s Happening Here (and You Don’t Know What It Is)

Sooner or later, if you’re a musician and if you live long enough, you’ll start to notice that the music the kids are playing is confusing, ugly, and stupid. This happened, I’m sure, to musicians who had been active in 1895, when the big-band swing of 1935 was blazing. It definitely happened to jazz players who had honed their chops in the 1930s, when the Beatles and the Stones turned pop music around in the 1960s and 1970s.

Today it’s happening to me. Looking to hear some fresh sounds, I clicked over to the FL Studio website and had a listen to some of the mixes being produced today by musicians who are 40 years younger than me. I heard a relentless reliance on 4/4 time and drum tracks that bludgeon the listener. I heard music that has no melody, a monotonous bass line, and exactly two chords played over and over.

Okay, two-chord pop music is nothing new. Lou Reed was doing it in the ’70s, and so were a lot of other people. I didn’t like Lou Reed much at the time, and for that precise reason. But I trust my point is clear. I’m no longer in sync with the music of the young.

Me, I like chord progressions. I like odd time signatures. I like melodies and bass lines that move around. I’m classically trained, but that’s not a bad thing in itself. The trouble is, I’ve become an old fogey. Still wallowing contentedly in the hallowed styles of yesteryear.

The other day I launched Reason, came up with a bit that I liked, added a bass line and some drums, added a high pad sound … and suddenly I had an eight-bar synth pop riff straight out of 1983. As embarrassing as that is, I like the riff. It speaks to me in a way that these intense young people’s music doesn’t. Hell, when they rap I can’t even tell what they’re saying. Of course, it wasn’t always clear what Mick Jagger was saying either, and back before Mick there was “Louie, Louie,” a hit song in which, according to the prevailing legend, even the lead vocalist didn’t know what he was saying.

I do like the weird accent patterns of a good rap, though. I just wish they’d write a song that had some damn chords in it.

Where’s my rocking chair? Where did I put my bifocals? Did I take my pills yet today? Phooey.

Symphony Jam

Last week I had a longish conversation with the fellow who will be the new principal cellist this fall for the Livermore Symphony. He’s a much better cellist than I am — to the point where he’s lowering himself a bit to play with the group at all. I’m very happy that he wants to join the group, and I want to support him in whatever way I can. I feel a bit passionate about local community music-making.

During my tenure as principal cellist, I was in the habit of actively providing support for the cello section in the form of weekly emails, suggested fingerings, and even informal sectional rehearsals held in my home. I had, accordingly, sent the new guy an email with a number of questions and suggestions. During our conversation, however, he made it pretty clear (in a friendly way) that he intends to run things his own way. He has specific ideas about how things are to be done in an orchestra — and of course that’s his prerogative as the new section leader. As a result, there’s really nothing for me to do beyond practicing the parts, showing up at rehearsal, and what I call playing the dots. Or dots and squiggles, I suppose, though you’re not supposed to play during the squiggles.

In the course of the conversation, he said, “An orchestra is not a democracy.” His point was, he will be making the decisions for the cello section, in consultation with the concertmaster and, when necessary, the conductor. But as I’ve mulled over the new situation, a subversive thought crept into my mind: Why isn’t an orchestra a democracy? What would it look like if it were a democracy?

It seems to me that many of the ills from which, as an institution, symphonic music suffers may be owing to the fact that an orchestra isn’t a democracy.

The first and most glaring of the ills is that symphonic music is in no sense a creative activity. At best, as an orchestral musician you’re a foot soldier, marching in formation and following orders. At worst you’re a zombie, lurching through hostile terrain and hoping your fingers don’t fall off.

The conductor has some limited creative autonomy, in that she can choose and then tell us how to interpret the music, but the rest of the musicians do nothing but show up and play the dots and squiggles. We have no scope for creative involvement — none. Or, to be absolutely honest, vanishingly close to none; I did in fact attend meetings last winter of the repertoire committee, a volunteer group that any of the musicians can show up for if they want to. At these meetings, the conductor presents a list of possible pieces, and we comment on the list and kick around other ideas while the conductor takes notes. Ultimately, though, she puts together the programs for the season from her short list.

I did object to one piece on her list — Ponchielli’s “Dance of the Hours,” better known to fans of Fifties novelty pop as “Hello Mudda, hello Fadda, here I am at Camp Granada.” There was general agreement that that was not a great piece, so the conductor crossed it off the list. That was democracy, of a sort. But other than that, I had no perceptible influence. I kept saying, “Beethoven Sixth, Beethoven Sixth! Or how about Mozart 35?” I might as well have wandered over to the snacks table and munched on Audrey’s very nice brownies. I would have accomplished just as much.

What would a creative, democratic symphony orchestra look like? Well, most of the players don’t improvise, but a few of us do. Shouldn’t musicians who improvise have an opportunity to play a solo here or there during a concert? Or to add improvised ornaments to a written part, if we feel moved to do so?

And what about the repertoire list for the season? Shouldn’t we all get to vote on what we want to play?

What if we don’t want to wear Concert Black attire in the future? I certainly don’t. Wearing black is a holdover from the 19th century. It stinks of aristocracy, and it has no place in a 21st century concert. Shouldn’t the choice of attire be the musicians’ decision?

There may be two or three musicians in the orchestra who have written, or could write, original orchestral scores. Assuming the composer has the ability to produce a playable score and print out parts, shouldn’t the orchestra have the opportunity to play through a colleague’s piece a couple of times and then vote on whether they like it enough to include it in a program? If there aren’t any composers in the orchestra, or even if there are, shouldn’t composers in nearby cities have the same opportunity?

Why is it that after we perform a piece once, it can’t be scheduled again for five or six years? Who makes these decisions? If the orchestra loves a piece, shouldn’t we be able to vote to play it again next year? Bands playing in clubs always repeat their repertoire — they play pretty much the same set at every gig. Why should an orchestra’s programs always have to be changing?

What if a piece is too hard? Shouldn’t the musicians be able to vote to drop it and substitute something else? Or — here’s a radical thought — how about simplifying a daunting piece so as to make it playable by amateurs? Why do we have to play (or attempt to play) every note exactly as written? If it sounds like crap (as the terrifying passages sometimes do), what’s the point of tormenting ourselves trying to fight our way through it? Or what if we do want to play a very tough piece, but need extra rehearsals in order to bring it off? Why is there no discussion of that possibility?

In the past, I’ve agitated for an extra rehearsal, to no effect. I’ve also made specific suggestions to the cello section about how to simplify an impossible part. But no more. At this point, it’s up to the new principal to try to coax an excellent sound out of a group of unpaid amateurs.

The word “unpaid” is significant. If the musicians were being paid, even at a modest (non-union) level, it would be natural that the people writing the checks would make the decisions. But no, this is an all-volunteer group. The folks in the audience shell out money for tickets, but except for the conductor and the concertmaster, the people onstage are working for free.

Some of my ideas about a democratic orchestra might need to be tinkered with in order to be workable. I’m wingin’ it here. But there’s one thing I’m sure of: None of them will ever see the light of day, not in the Livermore Symphony and not in any other orchestra either. Democratic processes are incompatible with the very nature of the symphony orchestra. The symphony is a hierarchical institution that was born in the 18th century, when the king was an absolute monarch appointed by God, and came to fruition in the 19th century during the industrial revolution, when the assembly line was God.

Today, we play the music of dead white guys, most of them European, while wearing clothing that would have been appropriate evening attire for upper-class gentlemen in the 1890s. (As a side note, there were no women in orchestras in the 1890s, except for possibly the harpist. The women in the audience would have been dressed far more elegantly than the women in today’s orchestras, who have more choices than the men — skirt or trousers, long sleeves or short? — but are expected to wear black.)

If you have other ideas about concert attire or anything else, nobody cares. Sit down and be quiet. Play the dots.

Little Boxes

Q: Why aren’t kids taught how to make their own music?

A: Because adults don’t know how to teach them. Most adults don’t make their own music, and they don’t think making your own music is important. Of the few who do think it’s important (or fun), most are sure it’s much too complicated a skill for kids.

I’m a great fan of music software. You don’t need an orchestra to produce magnificent sonorities, dazzling melodies, sophisticated harmonies, and propulsive rhythms. But you have to learn to use software, and that can be quite a challenge in itself. You also have to learn a certain amount of music theory before what the software is doing will make a lick of sense.

Kids can make their own music perfectly well with song flutes and xylophones. No training is required. Oh, and they can sing!

I’m sure rhythm sticks are still used in a few kindergarten classes. I’m sure kindergarten teachers are still teaching kids songs by singing a line and then having the kids sing it back to them. That’s how music-making began, and it’s how our ancestors did it for untold thousands of years.

Once you graduate from kindergarten, though, music becomes a singularly joyless, highly regimented enterprise. To start with, you’re expected to learn to read and understand pages full of dots and squiggles. That’s a useful skill. You really do need to know about the dots and squiggles, in the same way that an aspiring storyteller needs to learn to read, so she can read stories told by others. But once you start learning the dots and squiggles, it is expected — nay, demanded — of you that you ONLY play the dots and squiggles.

At this point, you’re being trained to be not a musician but a corporate zombie.

I think I want to do something about this. Not sure what yet.

Bubble Boy

Lately I’ve been feeling as if I’m living in a bubble, or on a stage set — as if my life isn’t quite real. For a while I was thinking this is because I have no family. But while that may be a contributing cause, as an analysis of the situation I think it misses the mark.

I’m a musician. I enjoy playing music. Yet I feel almost entirely disconnected in an emotional sense from the music-making in my community. I don’t share the attitudes and expectations of either the audiences or the other musicians.

Our community orchestra has a new conductor. She’s working hard to build up the orchestra, and that’s a wonderful thing. In the past I’ve served as principal cellist in this orchestra, a post that gave me the opportunity to try to help the cello section sound better. My efforts may or may not have been effective, but at least I felt that I had some input in or involvement with the process. Playing orchestral music is not creative in any sense, it’s very much a paint-by-numbers activity, but I was able to go beyond that in certain (very limited) ways.

This year we have a new principal cellist. He’s certainly a better player than I am. (He’s also a friend of mine.) I’m very happy to have him take the post, because I want the orchestra to improve! But he has some very definite ideas about how he would like to interact with the cello section. As a result, I need to get out of the way. There is now little or no room for me to make a contribution to the orchestra (though there was little enough before). All I’ll be doing is showing up and wiggling my fingers so as to execute the dots on the page in whatever manner I’m directed to by the conductor and the section leader.

This is not music-making, not really. It’s a zombie activity.

A few years back, I was playing electric cello in a local band. We played original music and we improvised our solos. This was real music-making! We were playing occasional gigs — Saturday afternoon at a local winery, that type of thing. I suggested to the guys that we could work at really polishing the material and then stage our own concert.

They weren’t interested. Playing winery gigs was fine with them.

Eventually I quit the band. There were other issues — namely, drinking wine at band practice, which seemed flagrantly counter-productive to me. But here again, the underlying issue was the guys’ lack of interest in or commitment to excellence. What they were doing was good enough that they could enjoy doing it, and that was the extent of their ambition.

They’re still doing the same stuff today. Their regular gig is at a local wine bar. They’re a very decent band, and I think they may have accurately gauged their audience’s interest in music listening. Music is, for these audiences, a sort of mildly stimulating social backdrop. The wine audiences don’t really give a damn about music one way or the other, nor do they have the cognitive skills that they would need in order to interact with music in a more meaningful way.

What interests me about my own music-making is explorations of form, texture, melody, harmony, and counterpoint. Whether I’m good at it or whether I’m a dreadful hack is a different question, and not one that I’m qualified to answer. The point is, when I launch my music app (which happens to be Reason, usually) and start working on a new piece, that’s what I’m involved with. That’s what I care about. And I’m quite sure there are no local audiences who would be equipped to discuss or even perceive the processes I’m exploring. What I’m actually doing musically would be entirely opaque to them. If they were to encounter the music (perhaps on a Friday evening at a local coffee house), they would experience it as a mildly stimulating social backdrop — disposable, ignorable, perhaps momentarily enjoyable based on certain surface characteristics (a strong beat, big chords, whatever), but not something to be actively engaged with.

Some people are actively engaged when listening to classical music. Certainly my friend the new principal cellist is actively engaged — not in a creative way, but he does care about interpretation and is very knowledgeable about the repertoire. And he’s not the only fine classical musician in town.

That’s the picture, though: The folks who care about excellence are not doing original music, they’re just painting by numbers. And the folks who are doing original music don’t care about excellence, only about being good enough to play for (and be ignored by) people who are getting drunk.

This is the local and personal manifestation of a larger social process. In a consumer culture, music is a consumable. It’s something that you market, and its success in the market is presumed to dictate its worth. The idea that a musical ensemble would challenge an audience to engage in active, thoughtful listening is pretty much unmentionable.

Part of the blame for this may lie in the excesses of academic classical music during the 20th century. Challenging the audience (by writing 12-tone music or whatever) was pretty much the only thing composers aspired to do. Those who, like Aaron Copland, wrote more accessible music have withstood the test of time far better than have Schoenberg and Berg.

These days, highly abstract music still exists, in the form of experimental improvisation, but now there’s no underlying form or conceptualization that audiences could aspire to grapple with. Experimental improvisation operates pretty much the way pop music operates at a winery gig — you can have an immediate sensory response to it, or your mind may wander for a minute, but if your mind wanders that’s okay, because there’s nothing going on that you could engage with intellectually.

In this month’s Harper’s there’s an article about how colleges are ceasing (or have ceased) to teach the value of thinking. There’s more to the article (“The Neoliberal Arts”) than that. It’s worth reading. But as it relates to my experiences in community, music-making, it shines a spotlight on the fact that neither musicians nor audiences dare engage in the process of developing their own musical values through a careful process of introspection and dialog. People just accept whatever musical values are prevalent in their neighborhood. Nobody questions. If they strive at all, they strive within a narrowly conceived framework that has been set out for them.

We’ll be playing Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” in the December concert. Not a bad piece. The narrator will be a former mayor of the town. I have no idea whether he’ll be a fine narrator or a stumbling, stammering mistake. But I was at the meeting where the repertoire was being discussed and the topic of asking the mayor to narrate the piece was brought up. Nobody said, “Gee, maybe there’s a fine local actor who could bring the narration to life in a wonderful dramatic way, with gestures and vocal inflections.” Nobody said anything like that. Innovation and excellence were not on the agenda. Bringing in an audience by having the mayor, a (very minor) local celebrity, narrate — that was the whole point.


Paint Me a Picture

I have a number of friends who are amateur classical musicians. Some of them are quite accomplished — but it always astonishes me that they can’t improvise. I mean, how can you not improvise?

It doesn’t really astonish me, though. Improvising is a separate skill, and they never learned it. Nobody taught them how.

Music education, at least as it’s structured in American public schools, is quite different from art education. Remember “paint by numbers,” where you’re given a canvas or a sheet of paper with numbered areas and you’re supposed to fill in each area with the correspondingly numbered paint color? Even in primary school, your art teacher didn’t teach paint by numbers, did she? No, you were given a blank sheet of paper and some paints, or possibly crayons, and you were encouraged to paint a house, or a cat, or a rainbow, or whatever.

Music is taught almost entirely in the form of paint-by-numbers. Here are the dots. You learn what the dots mean, and how to produce on your instrument the sounds that correspond to the dots. If you do a tidy job of it, you’re a talented young musician!

In every art class in school, students produce original work. But with possibly a handful of exceptions here and there, no students are taught to produce original music until they get to college. This is a damn shame.

The first reason for the difference may be neurological. Any six-year-old can look at a picture of a cat and use his or her visual memory to compare the picture to the appearance of an actual cat. The proportions and the parts (ears, tail, paws, whiskers) are all a matter of immediate experience. Music, in contrast, is entirely abstract. There’s no way to tell whether your melody and harmony are well formed without going through a fairly laborious process of learning music theory.

The second reason is practical. Dots on a page make no sound. Unless the student happens to be a pianist, he or she has (historically, at least) no practical way to hear an original piece of music. And nobody else can hear it either. You don’t accomplish anything interesting by putting a bunch of dots on a piece of score paper. If we imagine a ten-year-old showing her mom a picture she drew of a cat, and then imagine her showing her mom a page full of notated music, the difference will be glaringly obvious.

The good news is, it doesn’t have to be that way any more. Today it’s eminently practical for any student, from the age of eight or nine up, to create original music that other people can hear. All you need are a computer, a pair of decent speakers, a MIDI keyboard, and some suitable software.

“Mom, come hear the music I just did!” It’s a different picture now, isn’t it?

The reasons why this isn’t happening yet, except in a few isolated schools, are to do with administration. Some schools don’t have the budget for a computer music classroom. If they have the budget, their computer staff may be completely untrained in music software, and may have no idea how to install or maintain it. And of course most school music teachers would have no clue how to teach creative music-making. They grew up playing the dots, and that’s all they know how to teach.

Last year I volunteered to judge the music side of a student art contest. (By now I’ve forgotten who sponsored it.) What struck me as I listened to the entries was the amazing ineptitude of the student compositions. The kids were trying to compose original music, but quite obviously nobody was helping them learn to do it.

Maybe I ought to buy a dozen music computer installations and teach it myself. If I had a great big room to do it in, I’d be tempted. Trying to work within the bureaucracy of the local school district, though — even thinking about that makes me a little crazy. Anyway, they couldn’t hire me. I don’t have a teaching credential, or even a B.A. I’m a dropout. But damn, somebody ought to do something. I purely hate to see the next generation of kids suffering through paint-by-numbers and never knowing that they could actually make their own music.

Modulation Done Right

In implementation, thinking through the details of how your users will want to use a feature can make a huge difference.

Today’s details will be of interest to nobody but musicians who use Propellerhead Reason. One of Propellerhead’s optional add-on synths is PX7, a 98% faithful recreation of the hallowed and groundbreaking Yamaha DX7 (which first appeared in 1983). Six-operator FM synthesis — a distinctive and versatile sound.

Yamaha later went on to release several other FM synths, including the lower-cost rackmount TX81Z, which was very popular. This week, a small company called Primal Audio has released the FM4. Like PX7, it’s a Rack Extension for Reason. And it’s a (slightly less faithful, but still good) recreation of the TX81Z, which had one or two distinctive features of its own, notably a choice of eight basic waveforms, as opposed to the DX7’s straight sine waves.

FM4 has CV input jacks on its rear panel for control of the pitch and amplitude of each of the four oscillators. PX7 only has inputs for amplitude of its six oscillators. Ah, but if you put PX7 in a Combinator, you gain access to all of its parameters, including oscillator pitch, via the Combinator’s programmer page. Right? Well, sort of. Actually, “wrong” would be a better description.

Like the DX7, PX7 gives you coarse and fine tune parameters for each oscillator. These are in the form of numbers. Fine tune can be set from .00 up through .99. This is perfectly sensible if you’re programming a sound and can set the tuning ahead of time, before you start playing. If you need a pitch that’s slightly flat, you just dial the coarse tune down to the next lower value and then crank the fine tune up to .98 or .99.

But if you want to apply real-time modulation — from an external LFO, let’s say — to the fine-tune parameter, this implementation is quickly revealed as a disastrous mistake. The LFO, which is being routed through the Combinator, can only move the pitch of the oscillator up, because .00, which is the “in-tune” pitch setting, is not in the middle of the parameter’s travel; it’s at the bottom. The LFO can’t impose a bi-directional pitch wobble, which is what you would typically want — it can only drive the fine-tune upward from .00.

In fact, the problem is worse than that. When modulation is applied to PX7’s fine-tune, it is assumed by the PX7 to be bidirectional from the midpoint of the parameter’s travel. The fine-tune will instantly reset itself to .50 (the midpoint — or to .75 if the coarse pitch is 0.5) so that it can go up or down from there. This completely fucks up the patch.

The FM4 gets pitch modulation right. Guess I’ll have to keep it in my rack after all.

While You Were Art

Yesterday I was looking at a website for the electronic music side of a university music department. (The name of the university does not, at the moment, matter.) This particular department has a strong focus on “art music.”

I’m pretty sure I know what they mean by that phrase. They specialize in highly abstract, experimental pieces. If you want to learn pop music production techniques, you’ll want to enroll in some other institution of higher learning.

Even so, “art music” is a peculiar and off-putting phrase. I’m reminded of a story. I’ve probably told this before, so bear with me if you already know the punch line. It’s a true story — I checked it once, many years ago, by phoning Chris Strachwitz, the head of Arhoolie Records and a tireless collector, promoter, and disseminator of recordings that would otherwise have been forgotten or never recorded at all.

At some point, probably in the late ’50s, a white ethno-musicologist was interviewing a delta blues guitarist named Big Bill Broonzy. The musicologist, whom we may imagine as wearing horn-rim glasses, having a flat-top haircut, and probably being employed by an Ivy League school, asked Broonzy, “Tell me, Mr. Broonzy — do you consider your delta blues a form of folk music?”

Broonzy, in the gentle manner of many an African-American who has found it necessary to outwit or deconstruct a bit of white racism, replied, “It’s all folk music. I never heard no horse play none of it.”

What he was saying, I’ve always felt, was that even European classical music is folk music. Beethoven is folk music. And once you think about it, this is obviously true. Different musical traditions have different styles, but they’re all folk music.

With that in mind, I’m going to insist that all music is art music. Every bit of it. From Thelonious Monk to Karlheinz Stockhausen, from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa, from James P. Johnson to the Bee Gees, from John Philip Sousa to the Residents, it’s all art music. Today at the gym, while listening to Pandora streaming music on my headphones, I heard tracks by Herbie Hancock, Jean-Luc Ponty, Miles Davis, and Weather Report. And every one of those tracks was painstakingly and meticulously conceived and executed by passionate, dedicated artists.

The notion of “art music,” it seems to me, springs from a period in the mid-20th century when the composers of classical music, especially those who found themselves making a living as college professors, had to wrestle with the depressing fact that audiences didn’t like their music. Many of them responded to this difficulty in a defensive way by deciding that what the audience liked didn’t matter, that what mattered was being true to some deeper or more profound inner vision. Audiences were “low-brow.” Their tastes were to be derided. Those who catered to audience tastes were producing schlock.

This defensiveness is certainly understandable psychologically, but as a basis for an entire aesthetic, it strikes me as a bit dodgy.

Composers who work in universities have been victimized, I think, by a related intellectual trend, one that goes back much further than the 1950s. Ever since Beethoven came along and took the classical musical world by storm, there has been a pervasive feeling that serious music (whatever we mean by that phrase) must advance. Each new generation of composers must move forward in relation to what has gone before.

The belief in the virtue of progress was, of course, very much in the air during the Industrial Revolution. In retrospect, progress has proven not to be all it was cracked up to be, but that’s a story for another time. As it affected composers, the belief that progress was a virtue had led, by the beginning of the 20th century, into a sort of impasse. There was nowhere left to go, or so it appeared. Schoenberg tried to dispense with tonal harmony entirely. And yet, during the same period, Rachmaninoff was defiantly writing tonal music that was far closer in spirit and sonority to Beethoven.

Today, Rachmaninoff’s piano concertos are still played and loved in concert halls around the world. The works of Schoenberg and his disciples, not so much.

By the 1950s, the rococo variations on Schoenberg’s serialism and John Cage’s love affair with randomness had, between them, produced an environment in which the “serious” music being composed was just not enjoyable to listen to. There was still plenty of music around that people loved to hear, but very little of it was coming from the “serious” composers.

This situation started to change in the 1970s when minimalism gained a foothold. Why? For one thing, because quite a lot of minimalist music is tonal. Also, it employs repetition. When ideas are repeated, they transform slowly enough that audiences can figure out what’s going on.

All music rests on the tension between repetition and change. Too much repetition, and we get bored. Too much change, and we get confused.

It’s true that different audiences have different needs and expectations with respect to repetition and change. A knowledgeable jazz listener can spot immediately when the players are improvising on “Autumn Leaves,” even when the improvisation is very abstract. A listener who doesn’t know the jazz idiom or the jazz songbook will hear nothing but cacophony. I’m certainly not trying to suggest that composers of “serious” “art music” ought to be composing atonal algorithmic exegeses of “Autumn Leaves” (although that’s not a bad idea). You know your audience; you know what they’re hoping to hear. We should all be free to deal with audiences’ expectations in whatever way we feel is needful.

But I do feel an academic program that emphasizes “art music” may be doing students a disservice if it discourages or limits discussion of composers like Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Jaco Pastorius, Jack Dangers, Richard Devine, Robert Rich, or a hundred other serious, passionate, dedicated artists who have used popular music styles in their work.

It’s all art. Every bit of it.

Of course, it’s not all good art. Sturgeon’s Law applies. Ninety percent of pop music is crap, because ninety percent of everything is crap. What makes a given piece of music crap, or lifts it above the crap, is a different topic, one that we can have endless debates about. There may not be any objective answers to that question. But I don’t think it helps the discussion to say that any given style of music doesn’t qualify as art.


A modular synthesizer is really good at making abstract sounds. If you’re seeking conventional tones suitable for melodies and bass lines — well, there are people who enjoy doing them with a modular, but frankly, there are better tools for the job.

The challenge, with abstract sounds, is how to use them in a way that makes some kind of musical sense. Because there’s nothing resembling harmony theory to fall back on, it seems to me it may be useful to be entirely intuitive — to not know, intellectually, what’s going on in a piece, and not to worry about it.

Here’s a modest example:


Borrowing a line from a poem by Gregory Corso, I call this piece “Scarlatti goes hip-hop through demented halls.” It was created using the Qu-Bit Nebulae, a few electronic beat loops I had lying around on my hard drive, and very little else. Well, some knob twiddling, and maybe a filter here or there. (I have no idea where the loops came from, but since they’re not recognizable, I’m not too worried about copyright violations.)

I recorded several raw tracks of Nebulae improvisation into Reason as audio, and then copied and pasted bits until I had something I liked. Generally there are at least two separate takes layered, sometimes three. The reverb on one track is Reason; everything else is straight out of the modular.

Oh, by the way — the Corso poem quoted above was published in 1958. The term “hip-hop” is not as new as you may have thought. Not that this music has anything to do with hip-hop.


Note: At the moment, the server for my website has decided not to exist, so none of the audio in the blog is going to play. I’m waiting for a reply from tech support….

The latest addition to my modular synth is a Qu-Bit Nebulae, a nifty device that runs Csound code in its own little Raspberry Pi CPU. I haven’t yet tried loading any of my own Csound code; this morning I took Nebulae out for a spin using its default program, which does granular pitch- and time-shifting on samples.

This is a spoken vocal phrase that I happen to have lying around on my hard drive, being played by the Nebulae and processed by a ModCan Frequency Shifter and an Audio Damage Dub Jr. delay. Knob twiddling was employed — this is not an automated patch.

I figured the Nebulae and the ModCan would work well together. I was right.