Werner Herzog doesn’t Pokemon

Filmmaker Werner Herzog has been doing a round of interviews in support of his documentary Lo and Behold, which examines the cultural impact of the Internet. In one of the more entertaining moments of these interviews, The Verge’s Emily Yoshida explains Pokémon Go and asks about the cultural impact. Herzog goes full Herzog.

EY: It’s a game where the entire world is mapped and you walk around with the GPS on your phone. You walk around in the real world and can catch these little monsters and collect them. And everybody is playing it.

WH: Does it tell you you’re here at San Vicente, close to Sunset Boulevard?

EY: Yeah, it’s basically like a Google map.

WH: But what does pokémon do at this corner here?

EY: You might be able to catch some. It’s all completely virtual. It’s very simple, but it’s also an overlay of physically based information that now exists on top of the real world.

WH: When two persons in search of a pokémon clash at the corner of Sunset in San Vicente is there violence? Is there murder?

EY: They do fight, virtually.

WH: Physically, do they fight?

EY: No—

WH: Do they bite each other’s hands? Do they punch each other?

EY: The people or the…

WH: Yes, there must be real people if it’s a real encounter with someone else.

The film has been screened at a few festivals after its Sundance premiere, and will be available to us normals 19 Aug., appropriately enough, to buy or rent digitally.

What’s next?

Ivan Hewett writing in The Telegraph about the fetishization of premieres over subsequent performances of still-new works:

The system is geared to produce premieres, not to fund second performances. … Sally Cavender, a long-standing director of Faber Music, bemoans the obsession with first performances. “A premiere is really a lazy and ineffective way of creating an appreciation of new music. You don’t have to programme the other pieces carefully because you don’t know what the new piece will be like. If it turns out to be dud you can just shrug and say ’well, never mind, we did our duty’. Also the audience doesn’t have time to get the sound of the music in their ears, so it’s incredibly wasteful.” Stephen Maddock, Chief Executive of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra agrees, but points to the practical problem. “There are plenty of sources of funding for new pieces, because organisations want the prestige of being associated with a premiere. But there are very few sources of funding for second and third performances.”

​Compounding the problem, of course, are that many (most?) orchestral premieres are underprepared. Not because the musicians are bad or don’t care, but because rehearsals are wicked-expensive. You’re paying the same world-class players as you are in a concert, but nobody is buying tickets to the rehearsal. Nobody who hears a half-assed premiere is going to ask about renting the performance materials for a second time around.

Simon Holt, a distinguished composer, points to another problem. “Most premieres are winged after too little rehearsal time and as a consequence we too often only get some kind of passing superficial sense of what a piece is really all about,” he says. [Composer Colin] Matthews puts it more tartly: “Orchestras know they can get away with giving the minimum time to the new piece, because no one yet knows how it’s supposed to go!”

And lastly, this innovative and compelling new project described by Vanessa Reed of the PRS[1] for Music Foundation:

That’s why we’ve launched the Composer Fund, which aims to help composers at mid-career, and a new scheme, Resonate. It’s a database of all orchestral pieces composed by British composers since 1990, and there’s a fund to help orchestras with the costs of performing these pieces.”

Can we have something like this in the U.S. please?

(h/t @ArmandoBayolo)


  1. Performing Rights Society is the UK’s version of ASCAP or BMI. Like most non-US countries, they only have one PRO.  ↩

The other other emails

Franklin Foer in Slate on the prospect of Russian-sponsored, politically motivated email hacks:

We know that the Russians have a further stash of documents from the DNC and another set of document purloined from the Clinton Foundation. In other words, Vladimir Putin is now treating American democracy with the same respect he accords his own.

What’s galling about the WikiLeaks dump is the way in which the organization has blurred the distinction between leaks and hacks. Leaks are an important tool of journalism and accountability. When an insider uncovers malfeasance, he brings information to the public in order to stop the wrongdoing. That’s not what happened here. The better analogy for these hacks is Watergate.

I don’t think it’s surprising that people say rude and impolitic things about people they don’t like when they’re sending what they believe to be private emails. I really don’t think it’s very surprising that political operators are trying to pressure journalists. What is completely baffling though, is that a decade and a half into the twenty-first century, we still can’t figure out how to secure email systems.

Value of Silence

Those that know me in meatspace know that most of my waking hours are spent with headphones in my ears. Mostly, I’m listening to podcasts and audiobooks. Music is simply too distracting. However, when I’m in the throes of a particularly knotty creative problem, I find that I have to take a few days or even a week away from that. I need to give my mind enough space to be bored and wander off in search of novel solutions. Some research on the issue of silence bubbled up through social media recently[1].

A writeup at Nautilus summarizing a few studies leads me to believe I’m not alone in this regard. Studies trying to show increases in certain kinds of brain activity were linked to music ended up showing that the silent control subjects had better results than any of the musical styles tested.

In fact, two-minute silent pauses proved far more relaxing than either “relaxing” music or a longer silence played before the experiment started.

Also:

The total absence of input was having a more pronounced effect than any sort of input tested.

And of course, even in an artform constructed ostensibly of sounds, there are many opportunities for us to use silence[2] as impactfully as any other sound.

Even though we usually think of silences as a lack of input, our brains are structured to recognize them, whenever they represent a sharp break from sounds. So the question is what happens after that moment—when silence continues, and the auditory cortex settles into a state of relative inactivity.

​This is one of those many great times when something that was widely understood intrinsically is proven by science. It’s a nice reminder all the same: ignoring the space between sounds is a significant abdication of our responsibilities as composers and performers.


  1. No, the research isn’t recent; only my attention to it is.  ↩
  2. asterisk  ↩

“Donald Trump is a unique threat to American democracy”

This is not a random op-ed from some hippy academic. These words are signed by the entire Washington Post editorial board.

The Republican Party has moved the lunatic fringe onto center stage, with discourse that renders impossible the kind of substantive debate upon which any civil democracy depends.

I get that the Post tends to lean left. It’s also easy to be desensitized to the insanity after all these months. The language describing Mr. Trump in this editorial is a helpful reminder.

Music Brand Suggestions, part 1

I know. The word “brand” is gross. It doesn’t have to be, but it certainly gets used in lots of gross ways. I’m not interested in that discussion. Here are some humble suggestions for naming your next concert series, mixed ensemble, self-publishing cooperative, interactive aesthetic experience collective, netlabel, or hip gastropub-slash-concert-venue.

  1. Nobody speaks Latin. Besides, all the really cool Latin music-y words are already taken. Speaking of music-y words, none of those either. Save your fortes and pesantes and maestosos for the score.
  2. If you had to look it up in a dictionary or thesaurus, nobody else knows the word either. I know you’re clever. You don’t need to prove it to me every time you hand out a business card. More importantly, the rise of the web and social media has made it crucial for people to easily spell your name without looking it up.
  3. Spaces are ok. InterCapped names were really cool right around the time the lowercase i- prefix was cool. Apple has moved on.[1] Join them.
  4. Your name need not define you. It’s ok just to have a name that only you find meaning in, as long as it’s cool. Some of my favorite names in concert music mean nothing: Sphinx, eighth blackbird[2], Sleeping Giant, The Knights, Alarm Will Sound, Roomful of Teeth. Even though the name Sō Percussion[3] indicates something to do with hitting things with other things, note that they aren’t mentioning anything about being a quartet. Think here about rock band names. Do you get any inkling of what The Beatles, Nirvana, or Tool are from the name? No. And that’s totally fine. Apple is not a fruit company, and Coke won’t get you high.
  5. Check your namespaces. If you can’t get a reasonable domain name, Twitter name, Instagram name, or others, look for something better. It’s not worth the hassle of explaining that you can be found at “lorem ipsum hyphen quartet dot com” but “lorem hyphen ipsum” on Twitter and “the real lorem ipsum” on Snapchat and “not the fake lorem ipsum” on Instagram.
  6. Shorter is almost always better. It’s easier to remember, easier to type, and fewer characters in a tweet.
  7. Give yourself room to grow. Your name shouldn’t limit you or lock you in. If the name of your concert series is “Biennial Orlando Piano Extravaganza” you’re locked in to a schedule, a location, and an instrument. Also, you’ve brought shame upon yourself and your family by using the word “extravaganza”. If you were to start an ill-planned Tumblog called “One Surrealist a Day”, you’d better be prepared to post something every day! If, on the other hand, you just called it “Exploring Surrealism,” you’d get to post whenever the fish moved you to drop kick a Monday.
  8. No puns. Stop it. If you thought you might want to use a pun name, you should probably just ask somebody else to name it for you. Save yourself from yourself.

Stay tuned for a future installment on visual identity.


  1. They still make and sell iThings, but none of the newly launched brands use the i-, and some of the software products (Photos, Calendar) have actually been rebranded without the i.  ↩
  2. I’ll play along with the casing convention.  ↩
  3. The diacritical on the ō is a little precious, but they answer to “So” just as readily as “Sō.”  ↩

Avid plays chicken with Sibelius users, loses.

Philip Rothman at Sibelius Blog:

So, after all the sturm und drang about subscription vs. perpetual licenses, revised price schemes, and deadline extensions, Avid has once again dropped the price of an upgrade for users of Sibelius 7.5 or earlier who have missed the 1-year window to upgrade. The price for those users is now $199 USD, available from Avid’s online store.

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.  ↩