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.  ↩

Responsive Score Layouts in Dorico

New Development Diary post over on the Steinberg blog:

A master page definition itself typically consists of a number of frames. Frames are rectangular boxes that can be positioned on a page, and then filled with content. In Dorico, there are three types of frame: music frames, into which the music chosen for your layout is flowed; text frames, into which you can either type arbitrary text, or choose from a number of tokens (sometimes called “wildcards” or “text inserts” in other programs), which are automatically replaced with preset information from elsewhere in your project; and graphics frames, into which you can load images in a variety of formats.

Frames can be positioned anywhere on the page inside the margins defined for the specific page size in use by the layout. All pages in a layout use the same page size, orientation, and margins, but frames can be laid out within those margins differently on every page, if necessary. Frames are defined in a manner that allows the page layout to adapt to changes in page size, orientation, or margins, so that the same master page definitions can be used for e.g. both A4 pages (as typically used in Europe) and Letter pages (as typically used in the United States), or even for A4/Letter and A3/Tabloid. In the language of the modern web, this is known as responsive design, and the behaviour of how a frame’s size and/or position changes when the page size or orientation change is defined in terms of constraints.

The post compares these master pages to their cousins in Adobe InDesign. If you’re not familiar with that, think of master slides in PowerPoint or Keynote. Right now, I’m using a rather silly Sibelius workaround[1] to publish the same score in both a paper and iPad screen format in which I create a “part” for each format that happens to include all of the instruments, thereby creating multiple versions of the same score. I assure you from experience that this way lies madness.

I was just telling a friend yesterday that I expect to work in both Sibelius and Dorico for different projects for the first couple of years as Dorico continues to build its core feature set. But the more I read from Daniel on the development blog, the less I want to spend any time in Sibelius.


  1. “Rather silly workarounds” could be the Sibelius slogan. Many of the silliest are even documented and recommended in the official Sibelius User Guide.  ↩

The “Hello World” Trap

Eric Chasalow writing in NewMusicBox:

My relationship to cars is a pretty good analogy to how I’ve worked with synthesizers: They look shiny, sexy, and inviting at first, but once I drive one a little, it becomes just a way to get from point A to point B—at least until something goes wrong.

The next step is knowing what to do with the synth and where to drive the car. I am not much of a synth nerd, but I am a big computer nerd. In my experiments nibbling around the edges of electroacoustic music (mostly with computers), this has been a serious distraction for me. I think of it as the “Hello World” trap. Yes, it’s nice that I can write a little script that won’t crash; but, the script wasn’t the goal. Music is the goal.

Do others face this issue? How do you work beyond the “hello world” stage in a new computer music project?

James Tenney: Saxony (1978), perf. Ryan Muncy

This is one of the coolest things I’ve heard in a while, and it was written almost forty years ago.

James Tenney (1934 – 2006)
Saxony for one or more saxophone players and tape-delay system
perf. Ryan Muncy

Note that Tenney wrote this before personal computers could do this stuff. Today, this would be a Max or PD patch, and a relatively simple one at that. In 1978, “tape” actually meant tape.

Also, Mr. Muncy would like to teach you some things about the saxophone.

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!  ↩

SN235: Your Aunt Will Love It

Between the New York Philharmonic Biennial and the Nørgård in New York festival, Danish composer Per Nørgård has gotten a lot of attention in the U.S. in the last couple of weeks. I missed posting this podcast episode here because I’m a forgetter. Take a listen to our conversation with two of the proprietors of the Nørgård in New York festival. If you can explain the Infinity Series to me using small words and visual aids, I would really appreciate it.

Please excuse my mental mixup of Dennis Johnson and Ben Johnston: similar names, but musical opposites.

When you’re done listening to the interview and laughing at my dumbness (thanks to the panel for not pointing it out in realtime!), listen to some Nørgård. I’m a big fan of the quartets.

SN236: A Moon Shaped Review

Radiohead’s new album A Moon Shaped Pool was released today on CD and digital. It had a limited release back in May, and my friends Nate and Sam are two of the biggest Radiohead nerds I know. We spent a whole hour talking about the album on this episode.

I did my best to moderate the fanboy panel.

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.