Music and the news

Will Robin reporting on Eun Kim’s concert project “Sing Her Name”, a benefit for Black Lives Matter:

“Everyone knows the name Sandra Bland” — who died in police custody in Texas in July 2015 — “but most people don’t know that there are five other black women who were killed that same month,” Ms. Lee said. Proceeds from the benefit will go to the Center for Constitutional Rights, African American Policy Forum and Black Women’s Blueprint. The orchestra will perform music by African-American and female composers, including Florence Price and Margaret Bonds.

The concert will also feature the premiere of Courtney Bryan’s “Yet Unheard,” which sets a new text by the poet Sharan Strange memorializing Ms. Bland. “What I’m bringing to it is the emotional side,” Ms. Bryan said in a recent interview. “Being able to mourn what happened, but also celebrate her spirit.”

Part of me really likes the idea of classical music engaging with current events. It’s something classical music usually sucks at, in part because it’s usually made so much more slowly than pop or folk music. It’s also really great to see more non-white-male names on concert programs.

Another nagging part of my brain wonders if classical music can ever really have as much to say about current events when doing so requires text, which is not part of most of the music I write and listen to. So often, the music doesn’t add anything, as Bryan describes her music does. I hate to dump on her when she’s involved in such a cool project, and I don’t know anything about her music. She says she’s “bringing the emotional side”, “mourning”, and “celebrating” to the poetry. I would imagine that the poet might argue that the text does those things pretty well already. On the occasion that music attempts to describe this kind of situation without singing, speaking, dance, video, or extensive program notes, it comes across as a maudlin caricature of a mid–20th-century film score.

I’m not sure where that leaves us (and by “us”, I mean “me”) for classical music and politics, or stories generally. I would like to be able to engage things like this in my work, but I honestly don’t think it’s possible to do without adding things that are outside of it, like text or video. Even if I were able to solve that problem, even if I were to finish a score that spoke some truth (Truth?) to society, it would still not be a completed piece until somebody else gets involved to perform it.

Is this a thing other composers and classical musicians struggle with? I would love to be turned around on this.

Thoughts on Kevin Volans’s Speech

A couple of weeks ago, Kevin Volans gave a keynote address at a conference in Galway, Ireland. A few days later, the Contemporary Music Center published the text of the speech on their site. Since then, the hot takes on New Music Twitter and Facebook have been piling up. As usual, this probably says more about my social following habits as it does about any particular body of critical thought.

Thankfully, I happened to encounter the speech before I encountered most of the overwhelmingly negative reaction to it.[1] While I think there are definitely some problematic ideas, and a fair amount of “in my day”-eyeroll-inducers, there are lots of really important ideas here.

First, I want to address the title of the speech, "If You Need an Audience, We Don’t Need You". Like Babbitt, Volans is victim to his headline here.[2] He acknowleges that the title is a Feldman quote from a Darmstadt lecture. The average Darmstadt lecture attendee would probably not find this line revolutionary, or even remarkable. Context really changes the interpretation. More importantly, Volans’s main points are not nearly as polemical as his title suggests. In fact, those that read past the headline will find that Volans contradicts its spirit pretty directly later in the talk:

No composer I know can bear being unperformed and un-listened-to. We need audiences to show them what we have discovered, what we have struggled with. And to share the experience. For their cooperation we must treat them well.

I want to focus on the important parts that he gets very right. You can find the angry mob elsewhere.

An important part of Volans’s thesis is the distinction between art and entertainment. Again, this isn’t exactly groundbreaking material, but it’s worth pointing out that these are two different goals, even if there is plenty of overlap in practice. One of the key differences is the differing assumptions the two make about their audience.

[Art] sets out to offer an insight of some kind, something the composer has discovered for themselves – the audience, if they are taken into account at all, are required to make an effort, to collaborate, to listen with intent, with a desire to experience something new.

I remember reading a Yehudi Wyner line that “Art is from the neck up. Entertainment is from the waist down.” Volans is a bit less glib, and quite a bit less biological.

One of the problems many have had with Volans’s speech is the extent to which he demonizes money and business. He tells the old folk ballads of the days when governments spent money on elaborate presentations of “Serious” music, juxtaposed with the vapid, hit-driven presentations of The Three Tenors and commercial classical radio. I would argue that there is room in the world for both. I’m not convinced that the people who are drinking iced white zinfandel (hi, Grandma!) and listening to The Three Tenors on Spotify are not doing so instead of going to a Ted Hearne opera. These people don’t know about Hearne, and may not even think of themselves as operagoers.

I do not believe that popularising art creates a public for serious work. There is no ‘trickle down’ effect.

Volans blames Thatcherism. That’s probably a part of it, but seems a bit too neat and tidy to me.

I’ve read a few responses to Volans’s speech calling it ageist. This is completely baffling to me, as he goes into quite a lenthy diatribe against ageism, particularly in opportunities for composers. This is something that I personally relate to. I’m hurtling rapidly toward aging out of many cool opporunitites, and my current dayjob precludes me from taking advantage of most of them while I can.

At least 95% of all composers get better with age. … There is no such thing, in my opinion, as an emerging composer. There are gifted composers and there are not-so-gifted composers. Age is irrelevant. Emerging, who cares? Publicists.

My only quibble is the disparaging of publicists. NPR’s From the Top makes me want to barf.

Something I really love here is the emphasis Volans places on giving composers time to develop. He describes working with Stockhausen 14 hours a week. For comparison, I see my students for 14 one-hour lessons per semester. I can’t imagine that this is 14 hours spent one-on-one each week; surely, Stockhausen had more than three to five students at a time. However, the notion of spending more direct time with a master composer talking about music more generally than what note should come next in bar 58 in the third horn part is something that appeals to me.

More important than official study is the time spent talking and listening to other composers. Years of time, spent in a compositional community. So that the young composers are not under pressure to produce, so that their ideas and their education can mature quietly.

There are lots of things that I would really like to experiment with; but, I can’t justify the time for something that has such a high likelihood of failure.[3] I feel like I never really had that opportunity while I was in school, and I’m not sure my students do either.

I know I wrote that I wanted to focus on the good things in the talk, but I do want to call out a few particular points that I strongly disagree with. Volans laments that the kids these days have no sense of large scale works. This is true. I don’t want to write a two-hour piece of music. But you know what? I probably don’t want to listen to most two-hour pieces of music either. It would be a more than a little sadistic of me to subject audiences to something that I wouldn’t like myself. Moreover, composers write eight-minute orchestral openers because that’s all they can get performed! If an orchestra wants a 30-minute piece from me, I’ll stop writing this essay right now and get to work. The clever reader will notice that the essay continues.

Volans concludes with a list of seven prescriptions for composers and new music presenters. Yep. Old Man Volans just wrote a listicle. If you’re short on time, just read these. There is gold here, such as this:

Presentation: Every detail counts, and every second counts. From the minute the public walks into the building, the concert has begun. A concert is a Gesamtkunstwerk."

The only problem with this is that it’s hard and takes time and effort to do. Play-clap-play-clap is really much simpler, logistically. Volans also calls out lighting, pacing, stage presence, and appearance, which all kind of roll into the presentation issue. In particular, I love the line that “performers looking like unmade beds doesn’t instill confidence in the audience.” Bingo. However, I’m going to strongly disagree with Volans when he writes that talking about pieces during the concert is a bad idea. To me, this is a great way to understand a piece better and a wonderful reminder that the people who make capital-A Art are not wizards or demigods, but that they’re regular people.

One thing that is an over-arching theme that many have latched on to is that Volans spends a lot of time arguing for quality over quantity. This seems at odds with his arguments about musical scale. And, it also seems to imply that we’re making too many composers and presenting too many concerts. This is certainly something that I would disagree with. However, I’m interpreting this differently. If we’re actually going to get the Three Tenors audiences to care about more challenging work, we can’t just toss thoughtless performances together. If it takes more time to put together each concert, it might be worth having six amazing, wholistic (note the W!) experiences than ten Pretty Good Concerts. To me, this is the root of Volans’s anti-business argument. He writes that “one perfectly prepared and presented concert is worth 10 mediocre concerts. One bad concert drives the audience away.” If everything else—revenue and cost per concert—remains the same, this is cutting profit by 90%. However, buzzworthy entrepreneurial projects like like Claire Chase’s ICE and Ellen McSweeney’s Parlour Tapes+ have shown that doesn’t have to be the case.

I read Volans’s writing in this way: first, we need to care to make challenging music that assumes an audience that cares. We can solve the other problems later. I would only respond that we can actually do both at the same time. That doesn’t detract from the strength of his positive arguments, and I hope that the backlash to the more polemical bits can draw some attention to the hopeful ones.


  1. Hat tip to Rob Deemer for offering a more measured response.  ↩
  2. However, one presumes that unlike Babbitt, Volans got to pick whatever title he wanted here.  ↩
  3. This is almost certainly an artistic failure of mine, possibly a topic for a different essay.  ↩

The Finale Copypocalypse 2: Mob Justice

Whelp, that was quick. This week, MakeMusic announced that no, they would not be including what was to be a flagship feature of the latest edition of Finale: the ability to apply optical character recognition to a PDF. The details, as always, at Sibelius Blog.

For some reason, any mention of the word “copyright” seems to end all reasonable discussion on a topic. I don’t know how we got to this point, but it’s alarmingly common. As soon as Famous Creator says the word “copyright,” their fans dutifully line up behind them. It’s instantly asymmetrical. MakeMusic can’t say “nope” to copyright, and anybody else siding with MakeMusic is easily branded a Free Culture hippie. I shared my thoughts on the matter last week.

I still believe that the vast majority of the loudest voices opposing music OCR in Finale fundamentally misunderstand the technology. It makes me both sad and angry that a fearful Internet mob can halt the distribution of a useful technology.[1] However, in a conversation with one of the leading anti-OCR composers[2] earlier today, I was assured that at least some of the agitators do understand the tech.

Still, I am a person of science, as much as a person who has no formal study of science after high school can be. I try as much as possible to construct opinions empirically. And, I contend that there is no evidence that music OCR has any significant impact on anybody’s income. Note that I’m using the present tense here. This isn’t a hypothetical. We can actually look at what people are doing with it now.

Having said all that, this thoughtful composer, whose music I value highly, reminded me of crucial detail. MakeMusic/Finale has a rather cozy deal with “the world’s largest educational music publisher” (just ask them) Alfred Music. Alfred does not want to get into any fights with composers and does not want to let people scan music to use with SmartScore that it could sell them a second or third or fourth copy to use with SmartScore.

So maybe, the bigger problem than technology misunderstandings, intellectual property norms, or social media mobs, is that the software companies that we rely on to develop the tools on which we build our careers, don’t need us nearly as much as we need them. There are lovely folks working on the teams developing Finale, Sibelius, and Dorico. And all of them have bosses at MakeMusic, Avid, and Steinberg, who are not likely to make decisions based solely—or even primarily—on what is best for the weirdo composers using their software.[3]


  1. As many have pointed out, this isn’t even new tech. It’s just new to MakeMusic. PhotoScore has been around for over a decade, and a lite version has shipped with Sibelius for many years. There are other standalone products as well.  ↩
  2. … who may or may not have recently won newspaper-tycoon-themed award …  ↩
  3. Before you tell me about your favorite unencumbered open source notation application, don’t do that. Thanks for reading the footnotes, though!  ↩

The Finale Copypocalypse

Over the last few weeks, composer-pundits have been have been throwing a collective tantrum over a new feature announced in an upcoming release of MakeMusic’s Finale. The feature allows users to scan a score and import that into Finale.[1] Furthermore, users can import a PDF that has been previously scanned. This is the part that has everyone talking like MakeMusic has introduced a feature which will retroactively destroy all music you’ve ever created and possibly eat your cat. The outrage is primarily coming from John Mackey and Jennifer Higdon. I should say that I have immense respect for both of these individuals: they do fantastic work of making their scores readily available for perusal and purchase. I have often used this openness to study their works. However, they are doing so by distributing restricted PDFs that cannot be printed. Finale’s PDF import feature will be able to import these PDFs just like any other. Stated like that, the torches and pitchforks seem justified.

However, Philip Rothman offers a crucial, “turns out” rebuttal:

[Finale’s PDF import feature is] really a re-packaging of existing music OCR technology, which has existed for more than two decades. Just like any other document on the planet, if you can see it, it can be read and interpreted by OCR. It doesn’t matter if the document is a piece of paper, a print-restricted PDF that’s viewable on a computer screen, or an image on your phone.

I’ve been trying to come up with these words for a week now, and I’m glad Philip got there before me. The issue here is not the technology. I scan things from my phone all the time, sometimes from other screens. Streaming audio and video works the same way! Any time you’ve got encrypted or DRM-protected media, there’s necessarily a point where it is unencrypted for consumers’ eyes and ears. At that point, all bets are off, and there is literally no technological way to prevent it.

The worst possible outcome of this kerfuffle is that composers like Mackey and Higdon–not to mention major publishers like Boosey & Hawkes–remove or limit access to perusal scores on the Internet. This would be a completely understandable reaction, but would make us poorer as a music community to lose this resource.

At some point, you need to trust people to do the right thing. I can walk into a library, pull a score off the shelf, and do exactly the same thing that people are fretting about. Even without scanning, I could just input the notes into Finale and have a clean copy just like that. This would be possible with any perusal score, digital or paper.[2]

Earlier this year, Microsoft announced that they had created a machine intelligence called Tay that would chat with users and learn from them. Within hours, Tay started spouting off some pretty vile racist remarks. This was not because Microsoft engineers are Neo-Nazis (they aren’t). Rather, Tay was simply learning from the horrible racist remarks people were saying to her. Just like the PDF-scanning feature in Finale, the problem with Tay isn’t the technology. It’s people.

So to composers and publishers: keep your stuff right where it is. Put more stuff online. Don’t kill such a valuable resource because someone might abuse it. After all, we’re not talking about a Nirvana record on Napster. The market for these works are musicians and educators. We “get” the economics of the whole situation. We want you to keep writing more great stuff and distributing it online. Besides, I’m much more likely to plop down $100 for a piano/vocal score of Higdon’s new opera Cold Mountain if I can take a look at it first. I see this as a virtuous cycle between publishers/self-publishers and performers. Note that the cycle doesn’t include software developers. I would hate to see a technological development in Finale break the wonderful, direct composer-to-fan relationship the Internet has fostered.


  1. Yes, Sibelius has been doing this for a decade. If there was ever any sturm und drang over it, I never saw it. People are weird, right?  ↩
  2. Also, while this is probably only a temporary limitation, I’ve never had a score scan completely correctly the first time in Sibelius, which is using nearly identical technology. Usually, I find that unless it’s an exceptionally clean engraving with no mixed meters, tuplet rhythms, or other features of music written after 1860, it’s more trouble cleaning up than just entering notes the first time.  ↩

This is not a hot take.

I live in Orlando. It’s nearly 48 hours after one of the largest mass shootings in the United States happened here. Mercifully, I don’t know anyone involved. Or if I do, that horrific news has not yet reached me.

I’ve seen photos of awful things. Awful things in Colorado. Awful things in Riyadh. Awful things in Connecticut. Awful things in London. But this is the first time I’ve seen those photos and known the place. It’s the first time I’ve seen the TV news and known what is just out of frame and where the good parking is nearby. It feels different because of that.

I was at a concert last night, just a few hours after the shooting. I’m pretty sure there were press conferences being held at the same time. The concert was nice, but everyone seemed a little distracted. Maybe it was only me who was distracted.

This concert featured the obligatory Moment of Silence. I know that’s a thing people do. I assume people find it comforting, otherwise we’d stop doing it; but, I could only sit there and think about how I didn’t feel like I wanted to be calm.

I mostly wanted to shout expletives and punch Wayne LaPierre in the throat.

Better Feedback on Creative Projects

If you have ever made something and presented it to an audience, you’ve probably had the horrible experience afterward of being told how great it was. To some, I’m sure that sounds dumb. Being told that you’re great shouldn’t be horrible. Unless, of course, you were hoping to learn something about how the audience perceives the things you make. As an audience member, I have found the exchange to be equally unsatisfying.[1] As a teacher, I often place myself and my students in these positions hoping that we will all learn something from it. A social media “friend” a while back directed me to a feedback system called Critical Response that I began using in my own sessions; and, it has dramatically improved their value. Remember, we don’t have feedback sessions for fun, even though they can be lots of fun. We have them for their utility: to learn to make stuff better and, in doing so, make better stuff.

Choreographer Liz Lerman developed the Critical Response Process (CRP) to solve the issue I described above. It does an excellent job of separating the personal tastes of the “responders” (audience, in Lerman’s system) from that of the artist. The artist gets to determine how well they[2] achieved their goal without getting into aesthetic disagreements. I’ll describe it here in broad strokes, but if you’re interested in implementing it, I strongly recommend her short book on the topic.

Lerman defines three roles in a CRP session: artist (composer), facilitator, and responder. After presenting the work, the process runs through four phases. What’s particularly interesting is the direction to hold value judgements (positive or negative) to the very end. Again, this allows everyone to focus on the artist’s goals and the audience perception without passing any judgement on those goals directly. As I describe the process, I’m going to assume we’re talking about music. But as Lerman’s subtitle explains, the system is valid for any creation, “from dance to dessert.”

  • Step 1: Statement of Meaning – The facilitator asks responders to explain what they heard as specifically as possible. Lerman suggests “What was stimulating, surprising, evocative, memorable, touching, or meaningful for you?” You may have noticed that these are not all value-neutral adjectives! In my limited experience with CRP, it’s hard to avoid this at this stage; but, I try not to let anybody get too effusive or negative.
  • Step 2: Artist as Questioner – The composer asks questions about specific elements of piece. This is not the time for “Did you like it when…?” or the well-worn “What did you think?” Those are just soliciting general opinions. There’s time for that later. Artist questions can provide insight into what the artist thinks is important about the work. They might ask, “Could you hear the gradual harmonic shift from measures 28 to 40?” Specific questions yield more useful responses.[3] When I first started, I should have done a better job at preparing composers (especially students) for this. Good questions here can really raise the value of subsequent steps. I would encourage composers to take a few moments to write some questions down.
  • Step 3: Neutral Questions from Responders – These questions are tricky for responders who are new to CRP, as it can take some effort to phrase certain questions in neutral ways. So instead of asking why the third movement was so long, the responder might ask how the composer is thinking about the structural proportions of the work. There might be a good reason for the third movement to be long. Maybe the issue isn’t the length, but rather how the third movement is prepared by the previous two, or how it develops, or something else. A neutral question allows everyone to frame issues in the context of the composer’s own goals for the piece. Neutral questions are a great way for the composer to learn how the audience perceives the music.
  • Step 4: Permissioned Opinions – Responders get to offer direct and clear opinions here for the first time in the process. However, they should ask permission first. The script goes something like “I have an opinion about [specific thing]. Do you want to hear it?” This gives the composer the chance to avoid getting bogged down in parts of the work that are still under heavy revision. So if there are certain elements of orchestration that are still being worked out, a composer might not want to waste time in a back-and-forth about what they consider to be a placeholder decision. A nice side-benefit: the time of asking the question allows the artist a quick moment to recall the reasoning that went into whatever the opinion is going to be about. This might allow them to respond more thoughtfully. In my experience as a composer, when I’m not “prepared” for an opinion, it’s much easier for me to get defensive or ignore the feedback entirely.

This process usually takes around 30–35 minutes for my composition students. When you add time for listening to the work, this is approaching our weekly meeting time of 50 minutes. During certain times of the year, I may try to cram two of these into one meeting time, which often means that I have to cut a section short, or cut it entirely. I nearly always eliminate Step 4. Not only can these opinions be expressed and discussed after class, I think that both composers and responders actually get a lot more out of the questioning steps than the opinions. These are people that see each other and discuss music regularly anyway, so they tend to be quite familiar with one another’s musical taste. In the best of all possible worlds, we would always have time for all four steps. In this world. We sometimes live with three-and-a-half steps.

If you’re looking to implement a form of CRP in your feedback sessions, I have a few bits of advice. First, to paraphrase a great American philosopher, you don’t have to take my word for it. Buy the Lerman book. My outline above is a very high-level overview. The book offers a lot of detail on variations, examples, and specific advice for facilitators of the process that can make or break a session. And of course, I would hate to think that somebody read this 300-word summary instead of supporting Lerman’s work. Second, be sure you do a good job of explaining the process before you do the first run. Explain each step; give examples; and most of all, explain why the steps are structured the way they are. For those accustomed to either a critical firing squad or anti-critical Care Bear Stare, this will be a little uncomfortable and may come across as arbitrary at first. In my experience, it is worth getting over that hump, and the efficient way to do that is adequate preparation for the first sessions.

I would be curious to hear from any readers about feedback sessions you use for your creative work. What is your process like? Do you use a form of CRP? Any advice you’d like to share? Drop a note in the comments, or find me on Twitter.


  1. In fact, I know there are times when I’m so concerned about what I’m going to say to a composer or performer at the end of a performance, that I’m distracted from the music they’re making right in front of me. I know. I’m a terrible person.  ↩
  2. Yes. I used a singular “they”. You should too.  ↩
  3. Lerman does warn against questions that are too specific, but that has not be a problem in my sessions so far.  ↩