Thursday, March 25, 2010

Inspiration, Perspiration, and Perspicacity

Joshua White, who in his most recent blog says he has written more music in this past week than he did in the previous four, asks:
  • Does it take inspiration to make music that I will be personally satisfied with?
  • If so, is there any way to seek this inspiration or come up with an inspiring idea?
  • Would it be better to steer clear of inspiring ideas and become better at working with ok ideas to make them good technically?
These are great questions, and bring to mind Thomas Edison's famous adage about inspiration versus perspiration:
"Genius is one per cent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration."
What exactly is inspiration? Here is part of what the current Wikipedia article has to say about it:
Inspiration refers to an unconscious burst of creativity in a literary, musical, or other artistic endeavour. Literally, the word means "breathed upon," and it has its origins in both Hellenism and Hebraism. Homer and Hesiod believed that inspiration derived from Gods such as the oracle of Delphi. Similarly, in the Ancient Norse religions, inspiration derives from the Gods. Inspiration is also a divine matter in Hebrew poetics. In the Book of Amos the prophet speaks of being overwhelmed by God's voice and compelled to speak. In Christianity, inspiration is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
It seems that inspiration is often seen as something of a mystery. How do we get great ideas? Where do they come from? How do we create the circumstances under which inspiration can arise?

My take on this is that the feeling of being inspired is a wonderful thing, but it is fruitless to wait for 'inspired moments' in order to create something good. In essence, I agree with Edison on the relationship between inspiration and perspiration in the creative process.

Here's another question:
What does it mean if something comes easily to you?
(a) You are inspired; or
(b) You are working within your comfort zone, not really trying anything you haven't done before.
I can only answer for myself, and say that lots of times for me that answer is (b).

Something I have said in class is that it helps to think of composition like a job. If you were a film music composer, and a director said, "we need x minutes of music for a chase scene, y minutes for a love scene, and z minutes for a scene where the protagonist is verging on madness... Oh, and we need all that in 24 hours!", you would probably get busy and write all that music as quickly as possible, knowing that if you failed to do so, or if the music wasn't very good, the director would find someone else to do the job.

In other words, you would work extremely hard (perspiration), and not sit around waiting/hoping for inspiration to magically appear. Deadlines often provide all the inspiration you need.

I find it helps to think of ALL composition projects that way. Some will end up being more personal than others — they will have more of you in them — but it is often easier to finish a composition if you think of it as a job that needs to be done, as opposed to, say, thinking of it as an opportunity to reveal your inner psyche through music.

And, by the way, all things you create will have at least some of your DNA in them, whether you are aiming to do this or not.

Perspicacity — defined by the Compact Oxford Dictionary as "having a ready insight into and understanding of things" — is part of the equation in this way: If you understand the potential of the musical materials with you are dealing, you are far more likely to compose something good than if such were not the case.

Understanding the potential of musical materials that you create, and knowing what to do with these ideas, are all part of the craft of musical composition. It is safe to say that no matter how inspired you are, you are not likely to compose something really good until you have a mastery of this craft. And again, the only way to gain such mastery is to work very hard at it.

I have written about ways in which this can be done in other blogs, most notably the entire nine-part series on Composition Issues that were the very first posts to this blog. I will paste the links to this series at the bottom of today's entry.

I will leave you for today with a provocative statement:
Good composers are good by virtue of the fact that they work hard; mediocre composers are not as good because they do not work as hard. If a composition is not considered to be very good, it probably indicates more about the composer's laziness than it does about talent or inspiration.
Okay, have at it! What do you think?

Composition Issues (9-part series)

1. Originality and Quality of Initial Musical Ideas
1.1. The quality of ideas may not matter very much in determining the quality of the complete composition that emerges from them; and
1.2. The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much.

2. How do you Develop Compositional Craft?
2.1. Study the music of others.
2.2. Compose as much as you can.
2.3. Invite (and be open to) criticism from others.

3. Understanding your Musical Idea
3.1. Live with it for a while.
3.2. What's it about?
3.3. Does it change character?
3.4. What is its function within the context of the piece?
3.5. Structural Analysis.
3.6. Harmonic (or Pitch, Scale, etc.) Analysis.

4. The Pros and Cons of Development

5. How to Extend or Develop Musical Materials; Specific Suggestions

6. Balancing the Old with the New, the Expected with the Unexpected

7. More Dichotomies to Ponder…
7.1. Less is more, vs. More is more.
7.2. Always leave them wanting more, vs. Give them what they want.
7.3. Don't treat the listener like an idiot, vs. There's a sucker born every minute.
7.4. There can be 'too much of a good thing,' vs. If you have a good idea, then stick with it!
7.5. The George Costanza approach.

8. I think my idea has run its course. Now what?
8.1. The three models for composers' roles.
8.2. Mastery or Mystery?
8.3. The value of a plan.
8.4. Getting stuck, and possible workarounds.
8.5. Don't obsess!
8.6. Challenges = Opportunities for inspired solutions!

9. Taking your inspiration from wherever you find it

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Jessica's Tips for Writing for Youth Band

Guest blog by Jessica Blenis, who was one of the prize-winners in the Gower Community Band composer's competition last year:

Having had the experience of writing for the Gower Community Band last year I figured it'd be helpful for all those writing this year to give a bit of insight into techniques which might make it easier for the composer, conductor and the musicians.

1. EDIT EDIT EDIT. Then edit again. Sometimes you'll swear you've put an accidental in and when your program plays it back it sounds right but there's no accidental marked in. Mine did this oodles- there were wrong notes all over the place. Of course I'm working with Finale 2005. Even pro-Finale people, I imagine, would recoil at the mention of using a program which dates back five years.

2. Number and imbalance of instruments: I'm not exaggerating when I say that there was a really strange, out-of-balance, instrumentation found in the Gower band, which is not surprising or unusual for a community band.  For popular instruments, like flute and clarinet especially, there were 8-10 people where we'd usually expect 2-3. There was a fair number of trumpet players, I think 3 trombones maybe 4, Several sax players, but one bass clarinet (Katie Noseworthy played it), no bassoons, 1-2 oboes, a few horns, 1-2 tuba players, and I think 3-4 percussionists. Here are some tips for dealing with this imbalance:
  • if you want a solo (as in, just one player) flute line, definitely indicate this in the score ("solo"). Otherwise you'll have 10 flautists playing it and making 10 people play the same thing at the same time isn't very wise when it's an exposed part (it can be a challenge to play a unison line in tune).
  • exposed parts- definitely write 'solo.'
  • Don't go crazy with percussion- I almost had to step in and play with the band but due to time constriction, I couldn't. So I'd say three to four percussion parts would be enough unless you've got one person playing two parts which needs to be indicated on the score in order for it to be seen easily.
3. Range:  Keep in mind that the age range goes from I think 11-70 and most of these people are not professional or able to play wide ranges. Here's a basic outline that I was told to stick to for instruments where range is often a problem:
  • trumpet: Don't go too high above the clef, or stay there for prolonged periods of time.
  • french horn: I wouldn't write anything above written G5 (sounds C5) and nothing too noodley.
  • trombone/tuba: noodley writing is discouraged- these guys really like a simple but groovy bassline. Nothing too high above the bass clef, and tricky slurs were a bit of a no-no too.
4. Dynamics: Generally, the sound is loud- I was warned by Jill Abbot (School of Music graduate and horn player in the Gower band) about this, but didn't find it was a huge problem. However, with a big group like this, a limited range of dynamics can be expected, and some dynamics- aka pppp- are out of the question due to the sheer number of people playing. If you want something to be soft but with a full concert band range of sounds, try using 'solo,' where one person from that section plays by themself, though it's not necessarily a solo seeing as in each other section someone else is playing by themself. So cut back on numbers and indicate a dynamic, and when you want a big sound, have a tutti but definitely make sure that you write dynamics appropriate o balance out the sound- a trombone playing ff could quite possibly cover up (overpower) the sound of a clarinet playing ff unless you've taken register into consideration and put the trombone in a lower register and the clarinet in a higher one.

5. Rehearsal numbers or letters:  make sure they're very clear and put them in places which make sense- in other words, at the beginnings of phrases so if the conductor decides to start at H, the poor clarinetist isn't in the middle of a wicked run.

6. Idiomatic writing is best. Leave runs and whatnot to instruments where dexterity is more expected and long notes to insturments which would normally be given such things.

7. Level:  Grade 3-4.  Consider the level of your piece- high schoolish. In other words, certainly do not write stuff you'd be intimidated to play! Something that looks nice on the page can sound absolutely wonderful and intricate without being lip-busting. It looks great when you glance at a score which is black with notes but you have to be realistic and merciful! Some of the people in the band are very capable of playing tricky stuff while others are still on their way to getting there.

8. Appeal. I don't kno how many people in the Gower band came up to me and said that at first they really disliked the piece- which is my fault, seeing as I wrote something with a great amount of dissonance which isn't what they were used to playing. I'm not saying screw dissonance and atonality and write something tonal and predictable, but people will enjoy playing something they like much more than playing something which looks good on the page, and the audience will also like the piece more if it has appeal. The Gower people were very stuck on finding the melody- so make it findable. I didn't- my melodies were hidden and that was something I wish I'd changed before I submitted it. If you want your piece to stick with them, I'd say give them something that attracts people- but with your own personal seal on it. Not the animal, though. Seals bite. What I mean is make the work yours, but when you're writing for an ensemble it is wise to take into consideration what they habitually play, what they're capable of playing, and what they'd probably like to play/hear.

Hope this helps! If you're writing for the band and have any other questions please feel free to ask!

Clark here — I just wanted to thank Jess for taking the time to share these tips with others. They are very helpful! I also wanted to add a few comments of my own:

#1. "Edit edit edit..." Absolutely! In fact, I would suggest that when an ensemble plays music that has mistakes in it, it can be PAINFULLY embarrassing for the composer! I think any composer who has had this experience can attest to that. It also can make the ensemble and conductor lose faith in the composer and the composition; this is not only embarrassing, it's a lousy way to start a working relationship. Here are links to my "Musical Detail" blogs, in case you missed them:

#2. The number of players of the different instruments is definitely imbalanced, but that is pretty typical of community bands (and probably school bands as well), hence the need to double lines of hard-to-find instruments (e.g., oboes, bassoons) in other instruments.

#3. Range limitations — definitely bear this in mind; orchestration texts often have a list of instrument ranges for professional performers AND for amateurs; keep the latter close-at-hand when composing.

#4. Dynamics; good points all.

#5. A good idea for rehearsal letters is to place them at structural division points. As Jess says, never put them in the middle of a phrase.

#6. Idiomatic writing is obviously welcomed by performers (this is true for professionals as well, but especially true for amateurs), but since most students do not have a well-honed sense of what constitutes idiomatic writing for every instrument, go with your instincts on this and check periodically with performers of those instruments to see if your instincts are right.

#7. Again, unless you have a fair amount of experience, it is hard to know what exactly constitutes a "high-schoolish" level of writing for wind band, so go with your instincts and check with people who have more experience periodically (your teacher, the band director, other people with experience conducting bands, etc.).

#8. "Appeal." This is tricky... We all tend to want people to like our music, but I have been harping away at my students to venture beyond traditional tonality ever since I began teaching composition; how to reconcile the two?

I guess the most important thing to keep in mind is that it IS possible to have both; to write music that appeals AND doesn't resort to tired old clichés of tonal music. For the purposes of this course, you already know that you MUST venture beyond tonality, and I have explained my pedagogical rationale for this on numerous occasions, including several blogs (Why Atonal Music?, Atonal — Even the Word Sounds Unpleasant!, Atonality = Noise?).

If someone comes up to you and says, "at first, I didn't like your music!" this probably means they DO like it now, so that's a good thing! They don't have to love it at first sight/performance. In fact, new pieces often sound like crap the first few times they are rehearsed, especially if the performers aren't professionals, and if the composer isn't professional. It's a learning curve for everyone. The more experience the composer has, the more we know how to write idiomatically, to score effectively for large ensembles, to take the performance level of the ensemble into account, to include TONS of detail in the score so the the rehearsals don't have to stop every fifteen seconds to fix a problem or ask a question.

I am suggesting that a person saying "at first I didn't like the piece" may be an indicator of their response to a lot of things, including the chaotic way it sounded the first few times it was rehearsed. So, stick to your guns and write the best music you can, making sure your final score is as clear as it possibly can be, and don't feel pressured to write overly-simplistic music to make it appealing!

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Blog Index — Organized by Topic (® 2010-Mar)

Below is an index of most blogs posted thus far. I omitted entries that I didn't think would be very interesting or relevant, such as reminders of deadlines, concert congratulations, order of class presentation, etc.

Feel free to browse these — clicking on any blog title will take you to that page. You may find some that give you ideas about composition techniques, or that contain useful things to think about when composing, including suggestions for what to do when you are stuck. They are loosely organized by topic.

Originality and Art
Originality and Quality of Initial Musical Ideas
How Important is Originality in Art?
Is Originality a Detriment in Art?
Originality — Does it have Any Role in Art?
Kandinsky's Theories on Art
Kandinsky's Theories (1)
Kandinsky's Theories (2)
Kandinsky's Theories (3)

Argh! I'm Stuck!
Strategies for Becoming Unstuck
Creative Angst... Welcome to the Club!

Audience Response to Contemporary Classical Music
"Audiences Hate Modern Classical Music Because Their Brains Cannot Cope"
On the "Hatred" of Modern Classical Music Due to the Brain's Inability to Cope
Marketing Contemporary Classical Music (1)
Marketing Contemporary Classical Music (2)

Atonality – What's in a Name?
Why Atonal Music?
Atonal — Even the Word Sounds Unpleasant!
Atonality = Noise?

On Composition (Miscellaneous Topics)
Express Yourself? Really???
Writing a Play; an Analogy to Composition
Keep? Discard?
Notation Software Woes
Musicworks Magazine

Musical Influences
Musical Influences (1)
Musical Influences (2)

Thematic Growth, and other Technical Considerations
Thematic Growth (1)
Thematic Growth (2; Simon's Guest Blog)
Thematic Growth (3)
A Sampling of Post-1900 Materials of Music; See Anything You Like?
Things to Consider when Composing for Piano

Nuts and Bolts; Score Details, etc.
On Musical Detail (1)
On Musical Detail (2)
On Musical Detail (3)
What is a "Fair Copy?"
Jessica's Tips on Writing for Youth Band
Adding Multiple Ossia Bars in Finale

Composition Projects
Project 1 - Atonal Theme and Variations
Project 1 - More Details
Project 2: Using Musical Clichés in Creating Art Music
Project 2: Using a musical style or gesture as a point of departure
Project 2: Recontextualizing and atonality
Project 3: Fun With Scales and Modes
Project 4: Composition for Wind Band
Project 5: Write Three Character Pieces for Solo Piano
Project 6: Choice of Text Setting, or Genre Recontextualization

Newfound Music Festivals (and Other Concerts)
2010 — Student Reflections
2010 — Evening Concert Programmes
2010 — Thursday Daytime Events
2009 — CMC 50th Anniversary Concert
2009 — Thursday Daytime Events
2009 — Festival Feedback

Composition Issues (9-part series)

1. Originality and Quality of Initial Musical Ideas
1.1. The quality of ideas may not matter very much in determining the quality of the complete composition that emerges from them; and
1.2. The degree to which these ideas are original may not matter very much.

2. How do you Develop Compositional Craft?
2.1. Study the music of others.
2.2. Compose as much as you can.
2.3. Invite criticism from others.

3.1. Live with it for a while.
3.2. What's it about?
3.3. Does it change character?
3.4. What is its function within the context of the piece?
3.5. Structural Analysis.
3.6. Harmonic (or Pitch, Scale, etc.) Analysis.

7.1. Less is more, vs. More is more.
7.2. Always leave them wanting more, vs. Give them what they want.
7.3. Don't treat the listener like an idiot, vs. There's a sucker born every minute.
7.4. There can be 'too much of a good thing,' vs. If you have a good idea, then stick with it!
7.5. The George Costanza approach.

8.1. The three models for composers' roles.
8.2. Mastery or Mystery?
8.3. The value of a plan.
8.4. Getting stuck, and possible workarounds.
8.5. Don't obsess!
8.6. Challenges = Opportunities for inspired solutions!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Marketing Modern Music (2)

The second article I linked to last week was "Looking for Listeners Who Love New Music" (New York Times, February 28, 1999), by Greg Sandow, who composes, has taught "Music Criticism," and "Classical Music in an Age of Pop" at the Juilliard School. and has written on classical music for The Wall Street Journal and other publications.

The subheading of Mr. Sandow's article is, "There really is an alternative new music audience, one that's hardly connected to classical music at all."

Sandow suggests that part of the challenge in getting mainstream classical music fans to embrace new classical music is that the product (new classical music) is being marketed to an audience whose stylistic preferences lie elsewhere (18th- and 19th-century music). The problem isn't with the product; the problem is in the way it is marketed.

As an analogy, consider what would happen if someone decided to market "adult contemporary" pop ballad singers (e.g., Céline Dion, Lionel Richie) to fans of death metal, gangsta rap, or screamo, or vice-versa, using the logic that fans of one sub-genre of pop music (e.g., death metal) are bound to like all other pop sub-genres (e.g., adult contemporary). It would seem a strategy unlikely to succeed; just because you like one sub-genre of pop music doesn't mean you necessarily also like all the others. The marketing principle, in a nutshell, is that it makes more sense to target your product to people who would be interested in it than to those who would not.

Sandow:  Let's say you're in business, and you've got a product that your customers love (in the Philharmonic's case, Beethoven and the other classical masters). Now you've produced something much less comforting, and more esoteric. Would you try to sell it to the same people?

Or think of the pop-music world, where it's taken for granted that audiences come in many flavors. There's a mainstream audience, which loves Top 40 ballads, and there's an alternative audience, which prefers darker, edgier, more difficult music, by artists like PJ Harvey and R.E.M. Is there a lesson here for classical music? Is there an alternative classical audience that can be reached in some new way?

The answer, according to Sandow, is a resounding yes. As an example of such an audience, Sandow cites "Bang on a Can," which draws 1,000 people to its annual new-music marathons, and these, said its director of development, Christine Williams, are in their 20's and 30's, attracted in part by aggressive marketing aimed at lovers of downtown dance, jazz, visual art and performance art.

Another example mentioned is Milwaukee's "Present Music:" "You can look down from the stage, and see the earrings and nose rings and different- colored hair," said its director, Kevin Stalheim. "If I were going for mailing lists, I'd go to the art museum and modern dance companies, not the Milwaukee Symphony."

If you want proof that is closer to home of an alternative new-music audience, you need go no further than the biennial Newfoundland Sound Symposium, known around the world as a kind of sonic Mecca for new-music enthusiasts. There is some overlap between its audiences and, say, Newfoundland Symphony Orchestra subscribers, but my hunch, having attended both numerous times, is that the overlap is probably not very large; both have their own devoted followers, and just because you like one doesn't mean you will like the other.

So, does this mean it is impossible to get people who love Beethoven and Brahms to open their hearts to new classical music?

I don't believe so, nor is the article's author suggesting as much. Some mainstream concert presenters seem to have succeeded in doing so, such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and the San Francisco Symphony, according to Sandow. A lot of new classical music is very much rooted in old classical music, and it isn't unreasonable to think that there can be audiences that enjoy both.

On the other hand, there is also a lot of new classical music that seems to fall outside the comfort zone of many Beethoven/Brahms/et al. lovers, and perhaps it is unreasonable to expect otherwise.

The "elephant in the room" that hasn't been mentioned in this discussion is that a great many orchestras find themselves in crisis: Most are losing money, and are not attracting enough new, younger, patrons to counteract their steadily aging and shrinking audiences. As a result, some have gone bankrupt — in this country, this has happened to the orchestras in Halifax, Hamilton, and Vancouver, although all were subsequently resuscitated — and others teeter on the edge of bankruptcy. The CBC cited financial reasons for shutting down its radio orchestra, although some see it as part of their overall shift away from supporting classical music (which, in the case of CBC Radio 2 has resulted in a drastic reduction of their audience share, as I understand it). Fortunately, the National Broadcast Orchestra of Canada has arisen in its staid without any financial support from the CBC, and as I understand it, part of the NBOC's mandate is to programme contemporary works by Canadian composers. I hope they will thrive as an orchestra.

In an effort to grow their audiences, many orchestras offer "pops" programmes, film music programmes, and programming hybrids wherein rock bands and rap artists perform with a symphony. I would guess that some of these initiatives are financially successful, but I don't know the degree to which they create a new or larger audience for either more mainstream or contemporary classical music. Hopefully they do.

The solution seems quite simple to me: Programme more of my music! Audiences of all ages, hair colours, and body-piercing preferences love the stuff.

No? Well, that statement was made half in jest, but only half, because I would like to think that the solution lies at least in part in reaching out to audiences that are attracted to newer, often more experimental art by offering programmes targeting these audiences. But I recognize that it's a kind of logical paradox (A.K.A. Catch 22) wherein many who are attracted to the work of living artists think of symphony orchestras as musical art museums exhibiting the work of dead artists, and so programmes aimed at fans of contemporary art might not actually attract them, and may in fact alienate some of the orchestra patrons who prefer their art to be by composers who are mostly European and entirely dead.

One thing I have discovered is that you don't have to be a fan of classical music to enjoy contemporary classical music.  A few years ago, I started posting my music at, an on-line community of thousands of music-makers of all kinds, probably mostly falling within the various sub-genres of pop/rock, but also including other genres such as jazz and classical.  I have read many favorable comments about contemporary classical pieces by people who admit that they don't know or even like much about classical music, which I thought was pretty cool and reinforced my hunch that more people would like this music if they were exposed to it. If you are curious to read some of these comments, have a look at my Dream Dance page, or just go to the site's "classical" category and see what you get.

And so, in agreement with the Sandow article, it has also been my experience that there is an alternative new-music audience, but the challenge for contemporary composers is to find a way to reach them.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

On the "hatred" of modern classical music due to the brain's inability to cope...

Last week I posted a link to an article in The Telegraph (UK) entitled, "audiences hate modern classical music because their brains cannot cope."  The subheading of the article states: "Modern classical music is so widely disliked by audiences because the human brain struggles to find patterns it needs to understand the compositions as music."

Note that somewhere between the headline and the sub-heading, modern classical music has gone from being "hated" to "widely disliked." At least things are looking up!

My thoughts on the article:
  1. What is meant by "modern classical music?"  Schoenberg (who died in 1951) is cited seven times, and Webern (who died in 1945) once; no other twentieth-century or present-day composers are mentioned.  This suggests no awareness whatsoever of the "modern" classical music scene.  If this article had been written in 1930, it would make sense to cite Schoenberg and Webern as representatives of (only) one stream of modern classical music, but even then it would have been a very narrow cross-section of the composers active at that time, which also included Vaugh Williams, Rachmaninoff, Ives, Holst, Ravel, De Falla, Bartok, Prokofiev, Gershwin, Copland, Khachaturian, and Shostakovich. Equating "modern classical music" with "the music of Schoenberg and Webern" in 2010 is beyond perplexing; it is bizarre.
  2. Where is the evidence for audience "hatred" or "wide dislike" of modern classical music? None is given.

    Don't get me wrong; I am not living in some alternate universe in which people never express antipathy towards contemporary classical music. Quite the opposite, in fact! I am suggesting that the article in question takes this view as a given, without any attempt to substantiate it.  I have certainly heard people say they don't like contemporary classical music, but I have also heard the same said about medieval music, classical music in general, rap, jazz, rock & roll...  In fact, I think I have at some point heard just about every musical genre maligned, but none of this constitutes evidence for widespread hatred of these genres.

    On the other hand, each musical genre has its own and often substantial following, and contemporary classical music is no different. Consider this:

    • Compact disc recordings of Henryk Górecki's Symphony No. 3 ("Symphony of Sorrowful Songs") have, according to Wikipedia, sold more than a million copies.
    • According to an article in the New York Times (to which I posted a link in another blog last week), Nonesuch Records cultivates its own version of [an] alternative audience, and has done wonderfully, sometimes selling more than 100,000 copies of CD's by Steve Reich, Philip Glass, Astor Piazzola and the Kronos Quartet, and only slightly less of John Adams.
    • I have witnessed packed houses whooping and hollering their enthusiasm for new classical music numerous times at the Winnipeg New Music Festival.
  3. While none of these things "prove" that modern classical music is overwhelmingly popular, they are among many other indicators suggesting that some of it, at least, has a significant following. Michael Gordon, composer and co-founder of "Bang on a Can," writes: The wonderful guitarist, Mark Stewart, who is a member of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, but who also plays in Paul Simon’s band and on the film scores of Elliot Goldenthal, says “I play three kinds of music: popular, semi-popular, and unpopular.” Mark calls my music and the music of Bang on a Can “semi-popular.” [New York Times, 5 March 2007]

    "Semi-popular music;" that gives us all something to aspire to!

  4. We often speak of audiences as if they were single, monolithic entities, but they are groups of individuals that typically share some traits, but are distinct from one another in other ways. It is problematic to generalize about what audiences like or dislike; if it were simple, every television show, movie, and pop song would be a hit.

    I was a church music director for several years, and I remember once being told that "the congregation finds the music too fast" (or perhaps it was "too loud;" I don't actually remember).  How did we learn what the congregation thought, I wondered; was there an exit poll?  Of course not!  In the subsequent conversation I learned that one individual had complained about the music to one of the priests, and the priest, perhaps sharing the same concerns, had reported it to me.

    I don't mean to pick on this priest; I suspect we all have overstated a case on occasion. I have had similar conversations with radio producers, concert producers, etc., who have suggested they know what audiences like and dislike, but upon further discussion it often turns out that they are stating personal preferences, often reinforced by a few others telling them they feel the same way.

    Conducting a poll is theoretically a more objective method of finding out what people really think, but interpreting the data gathered through a poll can be a tricky business, potentially flawed by the biasses of the polling organization or individual conducting/interpreting the poll.  

    In any event, when a person states that audiences "hate modern classical music," they are not usually conveying the results of a poll; they are often expressing their own personal feelings about modern classical music, possibly based on part on what a few others have told them. This does not constitute evidence in support of their statement.
  5. The implication that modern classical music is complex, and the music of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven isn't, shows a lack of understanding of both older and newer classical music.  There are works of deep complexity by the great composers of centuries past (e.g., late Beethoven quartets, Thomas Tallis' 40-part motet, "Spem in alium," Bach's "Chromatic Fantasy and Fugue" and "The Musical Offering," Chopin's "Prelude in A Minor"(the tonic is not clear until the last chord of the piece), etc.), and there are works of great simplicity by contemporary composers (e.g., Terry Riley's "In C," The New Simplicity movement, much of the music of Arvo Pärt, etc. ).
  6. "Mr. Ball believes that many traditional composers such as Mozart, Bach and Beethoven subconsciously followed strict musical formula to produce music that was easy on the ear by ensuring it contained patterns that could be picked out by the brain."  I am curious to know to which "strict musical formula" (sic) Mr. Ball is referring. This tantalizing statement is not explained, although perhaps it is in Mr. Ball's book.
But enough criticism on my part!  Here are some quotes from the article that make good sense to me:
  • Phillip Ball: "The brain is a pattern seeking organ, so it looks for patterns in music to make sense of what we hear."
  • David Huron (Ohio State University): "Much of what the brain does is to anticipate the future. Predicting what happens next has obvious survival value, and brains are remarkably adept at anticipating events."
  • Timothy Jones (Royal Academy of Music): "Mozart and Bach have similar levels of complexity as Schoenberg, but those complexities are in different musical domains. Their music is very information dense. I would question how much of the familiarity with the music of Mozart and Bach has to do with culturalisation rather than an innate cognitive inability to understand the music of composers like Schoenberg. Certain people can learn to appreciate it."
"Culturalization," a term from anthropology meaning "to be exposed or subjected to the influence of culture," is, I believe, a highly-relevant point. Bach and Beethoven are an acquired taste for many; not everyone loves their music the first time they hear it. Similarly, music of unfamiliar cultures or genres can be confusing or perplexing at first, but, through a process of culturalization, we can grow to appreciate and understand it better. Might not the same be said about Schoenberg's music?

The degree to which this article focusses on Schoenberg's music is both strange and troubling.  Strange, because, as mentioned above, his music is not exactly "modern," in the sense of "being of our time," any more, and troubling, because Schoenberg's music was denounced (and, I believe, banned) by the Nazis for being "degenerate" (as was jazz), and this article seems to be suggesting that it is okay, or at least understandable, to hate Schoenberg's music because its purported complexity makes it impossible for most human brains to comprehend.

I don't buy it. But you probably figured that out by now!