Alan Tormey’s newest post in his series on music in television advertising went up today. It’s a fun look at some of the inherent contradictions between musical form and the form of the 30-second ad spot.

Read the full piece here:  https://at12tone.wordpress.com/2015/09/01/music-and-the-single-minded-proposition/

“Art music in America has been like a plant, transplanted in a new place that provides a very different environment from the one in which it originally developed. In this new situation, hitherto unrealized challenges inherent in its nature began to appear, and the special challenge of trying to live and develop under new circumstances may produce a considerable mutation. The plant is sturdy, the environment strange to it, the desire for adaptation great, and the process of adaptation filled with difficulties which at times seem insurmountable and threatening to the life of the plant, yet its wish to develop is very strong.”

Jennifer Borkowski – Elliott Carter and American Music


In your last post you asked me, and the readers, a number of questions surrounding American art music. Because these questions were raised in the context of Elliott Carter’s passing, I’m assuming that you’re using the term “art music” to mean music that’s made in the classical tradition and “American” as something more than a tautology. Arnold Schoenberg, for example, was an American citizen for the last decade or so of his life but I would never call his late works “American music” although I might argue that they were authentically of Los Angeles. So if I understand you correctly, I think that what you’re saying is this: that the particular modality in which Carter worked is really a European style of music but, at the same time, Carter really does come across, at least to the initiated, as a distinctly American composer. If this is your premise, then I think that what you are asking is why this is the case and how does this American character express itself. What are the American qualities of his composition? Where do they reside?

Well, I’m by no means an expert on Carter’s music and I’m not about to embark on a large research project, but I do think that at least part of the answer can be found in the particular vision and experience of America that Carter’s compositional process projects.

Because Carter was somewhat older when his career took off in earnest people often forget that he is almost exactly the same age as John Cage and Conlon Nancarrow. This is important, because Carter’s approach to writing music shares a great deal with both of these composers even if, on the surface, the style and character of Carter’s music seems to be an ill-fit.

Carter’s music, according to Paul Griffith’s obituary, centers on the “self-allotted task of increasing Western music’s rhythmic variety and freeing its form.” While that task may have been self-allotted, it certainly wasn’t unique to Carter and could equally well describe Cage or Nancarrow each of whom, like Carter, was heavily influenced by the rhythmic theories presented in Henry Cowell’s New Musical Resources. Cowell –  compositional prodigy if ever there was one – was himself only about ten years older than Carter, Cage, and Nacarrow.

So in one sense, Carter’s music is American because it deals with issues and techniques that were of concern to American composers at a time when non-American composers were concerned with other issues and techniques. In another way, however, I think that the music of our homegrown Modernists is also American not only for what they wrote, but for the manner in which they wrote it. Like their  counterparts in the Second Viennese School, they used pre-compositional systems to help generate material and guide the compositional process but always with the attitude that these systems were tentative, conditional, open to revision and reinterpretation, and at all times were a solely means that were subordinate to the ultimate end of the individual work at hand. (Cage’s Music of Changes radically problematizes this assessment, but it certainly holds valid for earlier masterpieces such as the First Construction). As majestic an achievement as Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra is, for example, it really seem to be more about demonstrating the power of the twelve-tone system rather than using the twelve-tone system to write a powerful piece. In Cage, Nancarrow, and Carter, systems are made to help aid and guide the composition of a piece and are then disposed of when the piece is done. Aspects of those systems may be returned to in the future, but there is rarely a sense that a piece exists solely to provide repertoire for a compositional method.

Part 1 can be found HERE

Doug Perkins specializes in new works for percussion as a chamber musician and soloist. His performances have been described as “terrific, wide-awake and strikingly entertaining” by the Boston Globe and he has been declared a “percussion virtuoso ” by the New York Times. He has appeared at countless venues around the world including Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Spoleto USA Festival, the Ojai Festival and the World Expo in Lisbon, Portugal. He was a founding member of So Percussion.

Doug has been playing parts of Simple Songs for the last month in the US and Mexico and, this winter, will be playing the entire record live throughout the US. Visit (www.dougperkins.com) to see where and when he will be performing.

It’s a funny coincidence, but this is the second time in the past week or two that New Focus Recordings has come up on the blog since, in addition to putting out your new album, they’ve also recently released some very fine projects by Claire Chase, who we just featured in the wake of her MacArthur Genius award. Given your résumé and fan base, you undoubtedly could have released this project with any of several new music labels – you’ve worked with many others in the past – why was New Focus the right home for this recording? Do you see the idea of the ‘record label’ as something that still has conceptual relevance to artists or is it at this point solely a means facilitating distribution?


When I was setting out to make this record, I felt it was important to release it with a record label and New Focus was where I most wanted to be.  I really admire my label mates and am thrilled to be in their company.  Dan Lippel (guitarist extraordinaire and member of ICE) runs the label and was very supportive, helpful, and involved in every step of the process (in a great way).

I feel like there is still relevance in record labels.  As you mentioned, I am in great company at New Focus.  Their releases have a certain aesthetic profile and commitment to great production.  I believe that this can foster a loyal listenership across the label that benefits all of us.  The best thing that a label can do is help create an foster a community.  Making the kind of music that we all do, it is important to have a supportive home and at the very least, it never hurts to be part of a great team!

Aside from having the freedom to go back and fix any little mistakes that might come up, do you perform the same piece differently depending on whether it’s for a concert or a recording?  If so, what issues are you thinking about when you craft a studio interpretation? I ask this question specifically because of Michael Gordon’s “XY” and some of the choices that were made in recording that piece. (Regular readers will recall that, in preparation for this interview, we linked to a video of Doug explaining the piece, which can be found here) Personally, I’ve heard the piece in concert several times, most recently in a tremendously good performance by Justin DeHart at the soundON festival. What struck me (pun only partially intended) is how different a listening experience this recording is compared to a concert and how those differences are almost entirely the result of the recording process.

[ed. note – I would explain the differences to our non-tech savvy readers like this: In concert, there is a small set of drums in one place on the stage and sound moves from that singular place outwards to the listener. In this recording, on the other hand, the microphones are set up so that rather then coming from a single spot, the drums are spread out across the entire width of the stereo field. That is, that the leftmost drum will come out (almost) entirely from the left speaker and the rightmost drum will come from the right. The other drums are spaced between those two spatial extremes. So, in the recording, alternately hitting the two outermost drums would create an antiphonal ‘ping-pong’ effect in fact, just such an effect is heard during the portion of the piece previewed in Itunes)]


In choosing to go with a wide stereo spread, the 5-piece drum kit transforms from a single complicated sound monolith into a 5-voice choir engaged in an intricate counterpoint. What this does, to my ears at least, is help to clarify the ‘algebra’ of the piece, if you will – it’s patterning and polyrhythmic structure. What you lose, however, at least in my opinion, is some of the piece’s emotional spectrum. It isn’t violent and loud and provocatively overbearing (although, to be sure, it’s provocative in other ways).    I’m not trying to sound negative, as I think both approaches reveal things about the piece that are, to some extent, mutually exclusive within a single performance, but I’m looking for insight into how you, as an artist, negotiate these trade-offs. In any event, I think it’s absolutely marvelous that a piece for 5 bongos can offer the same range of interpretive perspectives as ‘the great symphonies’™

Your insights about the Gordon are very accurate and astute.  If you ever see me live, you will see a different version of the piece than what you get on the record.  When I play live, I start similarly to the record to try to get people in tune to the slow moving harmonies that are there.  I then quickly move to a more and more breathless performance of the piece where I play with ever increasing abandon and try to bring the audience along with me as I push myself to my musical and physical limits.  In the studio, it was quickly clear that this communicates as noisy and clunky in the context of the record.  We worked hard to make the piece feel large and overwhelming on the record while maintaining a clarity of vision to the harmonic aspects of the piece so that the listener can get entranced and not just annoyed at me hitting my drums to hard.


Moving back to performance instead of recording, but keeping with the idea of interpretive choice, the score to David Lang’s “Unchained Melody” tells you when to play an instrument, but doesn’t tell you what instrument to play. That is, the player has to assemble his or her own percussion battery to accompany the glockenspiel. How do you begin to go about choosing instruments for something like that? What freedoms and/or limitations does that add to the interpretive process?


For David’s piece, my choices came fairly organically.   I was just messing around with my boxes of “noises” in my studio and kind of fell into my version.  The process was more like adding spices when cooking than anything else.  I would add a sound (like a beer bottle) and it would leave me feeling like I needed something rounder.  Maybe that would lead me to a temple block and that might lead me to a hunk of metal.  I just kept doing this until I ended up with something.  I will say that the sounds are always in flux.  I am playing the piece this week and spent some time tweaking just yesterday to reflect my feelings now.  I love David’s percussion music because in is always growing and changing with me.  Also, the freedom that he gives us in the score means that no two “Unchained Melody” performances are alike.


In talking with people over the years, I think that there is many classically oriented musicians who are interested in performing more modern and contemporary music but are a little intimidated, especially by the rhythmic challenges. Can you recommend any exercises or techniques that might help a non-percussionist start to make that leap from the rhythmic language of Stravinsky, Copland, or Bernstein to music like David Lang or Michael Gordon?

Hmmm…  at one level, I would say that if you can deal with Stravinsky, you should be just fine with these guys.  I would say generally that a little work as a percussionist is good for everyone.  If you are a musician that is worried about rhythm, join a drum ensemble, a gamelan, or a rock band!  Learning to groove in these kinds of groups do wonders for anyone’s core sense of rhythm.  I know that I am a drumset player (and bassist) at my core.  Even though it has been years since I have done either thing seriously, my groove and time are all born from these experiences.


Thank you, Doug for being so generous with your time and your thoughts. I’m sure our readers are just as disappointed as I am that you have to go now. Any last thoughts on the album?

I would just encourage everyone to give the record a listen.  If you are enjoying the record, come see a show, drop a line, or tell your friends (or the internet).  More importantly, I encourage you to dig deeper in to some of my old records or other music by the composers on the record.  My musical friends and I need more listeners, and advocates like you (if you are still reading).  Join the team and help get our kind of music heard!!!  I am extremely proud of the record and hope you enjoy it too.

Here’s a heads up: next week, we’ll be publishing an exclusive interview with Doug Perkins, a founding member of  So Percussion and one of America’s foremost performers of New Music. Doug’s new album Simple Songs – a fantastic listen – is available for purchase at the following sites:

At the New Focus Recordings Web Site: http://www.newfocusrecordings.com/catalogue/doug-perkins-simple-songs

On Itunes: http://itunes.apple.com/album/simple-songs/id567843255?v0=9988&ign-mpt=uo%3D1

On Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Simple-Songs/dp/B009LUBJ14/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1349717235&sr=8-2&keywords=doug+perkins+simple

As a teaser, here’s Doug discussing Michael Gordon’s XY, the final piece on Simple Songs.

After a long blogging hiatus, partly due to a change in my professional role at Mizzou, I’m finally returning to the blogosphere. As the first article in a couple of months, I wanted to write today about the question of artist identity in the 21st century. This is a sprawling topic, but also one that has personal implications for every creative professional.
Read the rest of this entry »

Weekly Digest

June 20, 2012

Weekly Digest for June 20, 2012

We’ve all been there:

 “There were two people walking down the street. One was a musician. The other guy didn’t have any money either.”

– Your Buddy who Majored in Business (or Law) (or Medicine)

I’m sure you’ve heard that joke at some point. It’s a common understanding that you don’t major in music for the dough that you’ll be rolling in post-graduation. So what is the Value of a Music Degree? This post is lovingly dedicated to anyone whose friends or family questioned their dreams of going to music school.

Stuff we like to hear:

Louisiana reaps the benefits of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation’s grants for music education.

Money Going to Music Education (for a change)

About the changing faces of nationally reknowned orchestra conductors:

Hey, who’s that kid in front of the orchestra? Who let him conduct? Wait a sec, he’s actually not half-bad… A look at the emerging trend of younger conductors and what it means to be a Maestro.

Kids these days:
“Imagine a culture where the average citizen received a public education in music that made it possible for them to go out as an adult and in their spare time create original music. That world is already taking shape – with or without our current public education system.” – Thomas J. West

So much controversy surrounds Amanda Palmer (Palmer is one half of the Boston-based piano and drums duo Dresden Dolls), but no matter whether you love her or hate her, there’s a lesson in her story for music educators everywhere: It’s time to provide more for the members of your ensemble than the standard three-concerts-a-year.

Beatles forever:

As one of my music professors once said, “The Beatles are the only rock n’ roll worth listening to. They should be required listening for all music students.”

So why is this? We know why they’re popular, but why are they SO popular? As August 22 approaches (marking the 50th anniversary of the first concert consisting of the lineup of John, Paul, George, and Ringo), here’s an examination of what keeps a mere 7-year career alive for 50 years.

It’s time for me to come out…I am a Cultural Creative. Perhaps you are too?

The term Cultural Creative, drawn from research and population surveys conducted over the past few decades, refers to a growing subculture of people whose values and world views are quite distinct from those that most often dominates our politics, media and many cultural norms.  Though still not universally known, the term gained popularity when sociologist Paul H. Ray and psychologist Sherry Ruth Anderson’s published their 2000 book, The Cultural Creatives. You can read an updated report based on 2008 research here.

Cultural Creatives are actively creating cultural and social change and tend to have a more unifying world view–embracing ecological sustainability, social responsibility, diverse cultures, creative expression and psycho-spiritual growth–and are more willing to challenge the status quo of materialism, cynicism, and, yes, even capitalism.  While less than 5% of the population in 1960, they have now become approximately a third of the American population.

This general area of research and discussion–how we are changing as a culture and as humans–is quite complex, a bit tricky and rarely addressed directly so I can only begin to touch on some key points in this blog entry.  Come join me for a live program in Chicago on Sunday, June 24th when I’ll be leading a town hall-like discussion, sponsored by our local chapter of the Institute of Noetic Sciences.

According to Ray’s research (with similar findings in Europe and Japan), Cultural Creatives have only emerged as a significant subculture since the 1960s, joining the two existing subcultures who’ve been in America for a while, Moderns and Traditionals. Moderns generally rule our culture and media–they value skepticism, scientific expertise, individuality, material success and efficiency. They have long engaged in a culture war with Traditionals, with their conservative, nostalgic, usually religious values. Traditionals believe their way is the right way and that we should go back to a better time, while Moderns strongly resent any infringement on their individual freedom and rights (and usually rights of others) to achieve success.

Cultural Creatives don’t subscribe either to the Every-Man-for-Himself or Us-vs.-Them philosophies of the Moderns and Traditionals. They have a different–and some would say more evolved–ecological, spiritual and global consciousness. They believe that humans are one people, that the earth is our home and must be taken care of, and that we have the power and imagination to invent a better future where the planet and everyone in it can thrive.  Check out the latest published population distribution (chart, left) based on Ray’s 2008 survey. While Moderns are still the largest group with about 40% of the population, Cultural Creatives are catching up, and Traditionals are slowly diminishing in number (“Transitionals” refer to Traditionals whose green, planetary values are moving them toward Cultural Creatives).

“Core” Cultural Creatives at about 16% tend to be the leading change agents, and include artists, writers, thinkers, spiritual- and alternative health-seekers, who combine a focus on inner life and authenticity with a strong passion for altruism, activism and social responsibility.  The “Green” Cultural Creatives tend to be a bit more secular or conventionally religious, but still embrace more eco-conscious, social justice values.  While it’s appealing to put Cultural Creatives in a political category, Ray points out that neither party accurately reflects Cultural Creative values and most often surveys reflect a deep dissatisfaction with both parties.

Despite their size, Cultural Creatives have yet to fully be identified, even by themselves, and because their values tend to be disdained by the dominant culture as too idealistic, most of us are still in a closet that we may or may not be aware of.  More to say about this and Cultural Creatives in my next blog entry on my regular Innovation on my Mind blog.

Finally, surveys in different countries have shown that Cultural Creatives have more in common with each other across cultures and countries.  Some Europeans have taken on the Cultural Creative mantle, with Cultural Creatives online TV and a film, called Cultural Creatives 1.0: The Revolution, which you watch by clicking here.

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