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.

Writers of writers

In my most recent creative technology explorations, I’ve been really interested in autonomous software that can generate music or art. In reading about this stuff on the Web, I often find comments along the lines of “the computers will put the composers out of work.” In a fascinating post about neural-network-based machine intelligence writing prose and poetry, Ross Goodwin has the perfect response.

When we teach computers to write, the computers don’t replace us any more than pianos replace pianists—in a certain way, they become our pens, and we become more than writers. We become writers of writers.

Yes, please. I want to do that.

Since the above-linked post was written, Goodwin has written a new post linking to this delightfully insane film, shot from a screenplay written by his neural network algorithms.

(The writers I’m writing are much dumber than the ones Goodwin is writing, but it’s still fascinating and thrilling to me. Here’s an example of one of the better things my little guy made.)

Kadenze is my new home for learning about creative technology

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) made a big splash a few years ago with the launch of Coursera. If you’ve not heard this wacky term, a MOOC is an online course that is usually free or cheap, and involves a nearly unlimited number of students to take a class simultaneously. I’ve read of Coursera courses that have had tens of thousands of students. This creates an active community, and a low-pressure learning environment. Coursera is a platform hosting college courses from major universities on a wide variety of topics.

Kadenze is a relatively new MOOC platform that focuses on creative technology. It was founded in part by professors at California Institute of the Arts and Princeton University (among others) who specialize in computer music. You can audit all of their classes for free, which allows you to watch lecture videos, read course materials, and participate in class discussions. To submit assignments and receive feedback, you can sign up for a premium account at $10/mo.

I’ve audited parts of four or five courses on Kadenze in the last year. The quality of the content and instruction is extremely high, and the topics are right up my alley. One small frustration is that there is no way to watch the videos offline. I often want to watch on my iPad while I’m in low-connectivity areas, and there’s currently no good way to do that.[1] Apart from that minor quibble, my experience has been great, and I would strongly urge anyone who has summer tech learning goals to check out their upcoming offerings, many of which focus on free, open-source software.

  • Introduction to Programming for Musicians and Digital Artists – This is a class by one of Kadenze’s founders, Ajay Kapur, on music programming language ChucK. The videos are a little hokey at times, but it’s a terrific starting class. One of these days, I’ll post a little about a project I’ve been working on in ChucK. It’s not quite ready for primetime just yet.
  • The Nature of Code – Dan Shiffman on creating visual programs in P5.js that mimic natural processes like flocking, schooling, and branching.
  • Programming Max: Structuring Interactive Software for Digital Arts – Not open yet, but I’m all about this. For those on team Pure Data, there’s a PD course scheduled for the end of this year with Sergi Jorda and the Notorious MSP himself.
  • Touring Modernism: From the French avant-garde to American Pop and Beyond – This one is a little bit not like the others, in that it’s a little more theoretical than applied, but the first unit of lecture videos that are available as I write this are stellar! Professor Lisa Wainwright of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago[2] is a really engaging lecturer, and she gets to use examples from right there at the Art Institute!

So if you’re like me and set unreasonable learning goals for the summer time, these courses are worth every penny of either the free or paid tiers. Kadenze is one of those rich resources that makes me want to quit all my jobs and responsibilities and just dive in to learning stuff really deeply and making wild and reckless creative decisions. If you’re making something with what you learn there, please share. I’d love to see.

  1. In fairness, this is not entirely Kadenze’s fault. While they provide the MOOC platform, they don’t own the content. Rather, they license it from the people and institutions who create it. I suppose this arrangement helps keep costs down, but I would definitely pay the $10/mo. if I could watch offline.  ↩
  2. …of Latter Day Saints, I suppose.  ↩


This past Sunday’s #musochat, hosted by New Music Gathering, was focused on support for new projects. I’m trying to get better at deciding to take on new projects, not take on other projects, and stopping projects that have run their course. It made me think of this talk by composer Martin Bresnick. Some might think of this direct discussion of money as a little crass.[1] But lately I’ve been thinking of “support” in terms of how much time and energy I can devote while maintaining my ideal level of mental and physical health.

This is one of Chamber Music America’s First Tuesday sessions from March 2016. In it, Bresnick talks about how much a composer should charge for a commissioning fee on a new piece of music.

There are three parts to this: you the composer, the next part is the commissioner, and the third part is the work itself.

I read a nice suggestion a while back. If the response to a new project isn’t “Hell yes!”, it has to be “no.”

  1. I might argue that those people are being a little precious.  ↩

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.  ↩

The Great Internet Deflation continues

This week, the The New York Times announced that they would join the Associated Press in decapitalizing (decapitating?) the word “Internet.”

“In our view, it’s become wholly generic, like ‘electricity or the ‘telephone,’ ” he said. “It was never trademarked. It’s not based on any proper noun. The best reason for capitalizing it in the past may have been that the word was new. But at one point, I’ve heard, ‘phonograph’ was capitalized.”

Dumb analogy. The Internet, as a physical object, is arguably humanity’s greatest creation, and certainly among its most influential. You know how many phonographs there were? Me neither, but I’m pretty sure it’s more than one.

Furthermore, as we grapple with issues of network neutrality that may actually create many Internet-like networks, it’s important to use language to remind ourselves that the Internet is useful precisely because of its singular nature.

Long live Internet.

Career Candor

Remarkably candid post from pianist Andy Lee on NewMusicBox recently.

First, a deer chaser makes noise, and that’s exciting. There are a lot of things I want to do with my career, but making some noise and getting noticed seems like a good place to be. Second, all the water that pours out of the deer chaser has to go somewhere. No, we don’t always get to control where it goes, but that water still nourishes the soil and helps create new growth.

Likewise, career progress is often difficult to see. I haven’t sold any CDs as a result of that post, nor have any gig offers come my way, but I’ve expanded my new music network (to use a crass term), and I’ve gotten my foot in the door with an entirely new community. It was also a useful reminder that I enjoy writing. That’s not nothing.

Not only does he talk about his career struggles directly, but also the psychological impact of those struggles on his approach to future opportunities. Read the whole thing.

And when you’re done reading, buy Andy’s disc. It’s great.