Ideas Feed

Understanding Donald Trump: how technological mediation leads to actual surreality


Neil Postman is, in my estimation, one of the most important writers whose work needs to be more actively read, studied, and taught than it is currently. While his work is not obscure, and has had some influence, I open this short essay by asserting its significance because Postman has articulated and explained the fundamental necessity of deconstructing, understanding, and moderating the influence and effects of our media on ourselves (and by extension our culture, our collective behavior and decisions) better and more accessibly than any other writer I've found.

Also, for me, through much of his work as a whole Postman implicitly draws out the evolution of a primary thesis of communication studies--the medium is the message--into our growth and experience of hyperreality (which is vastly accelerated by the internet). I think that this process has continued, and that--because our experience of hyperreality is so pervasive and so convincing--we are now actively trying to make reality match our own subjective notions of what it should be, and the phenomenon of Donald Trump as PEOTUS is as clear an example of this large-scale reification of hyperreality as I've seen.

Look: I know that those previous two sentences are maybe not the clearest I've ever written, and that this can seem dense and obscure and not really worth thinking about too much. But, and I urge you to find me persuasive on this, it really is important and actually not too complicated, if you can stay in a conceptual space for a bit. I think it's urgent that we see and understand this set of phenomena we're currently experiencing, to help explain a world where "President Trump" is not a joke in a Simpsons episode from 2000, and to inform how we react and act going forward.

Continue reading "Understanding Donald Trump: how technological mediation leads to actual surreality" »

How TV Can Solve the Music Crisis

From Ted Gioia at the Daily Beast is a great article detailing what the continually faltering and failing music industry can learn from what TV, as an industry, is doing right. His framing makes a powerful point: not only is TV thriving by selling content via a profitable subscription model, as an industry it is taking a product that was long given away free and convincing people to pay for it.

Read it here: Five Lessons the Faltering Music Industry Could Learn From TV. (Gioia's writing about music is always interesting, btw.)

Music Ed: a bastion of traditional practice and realm of fantastic experimentation...with no overlap

The longer I teach music to college students, the more vexed I am by the gulf between much research in the field of music education, and how it is actually practiced in schools. In the U.S., music education in public schools by and large continues to be structured and practiced on the venerable model of large ensemble performance, usually in band, choir, and/or orchestra programs. I personally am a product of such programs, and have taught and worked in those modes and models for 20 years now. There is much to recommend them.

But as I continue to work in this field, I find it more and more preposterous how unchanging and unaffected by contemporary cultural practices the large ensemble, performance-based models of music education are. I mean, I can walk into almost any high school music room or university music building, and find curricula, models, modes of creation and performance, even values that are essentially identical to what I experienced 25 years ago. But consider how vastly musical culture has changed in those 25 years! What I experienced and learned as a student was culturally distant at the time; now it is absurdly so.

Continue reading "Music Ed: a bastion of traditional practice and realm of fantastic experimentation...with no overlap" »

DarwinTunes, collaborative musical evolution

DarwinTunes started with randomly generated sounds from a computer and then allows short loops to be chosen by anyone who participates. This 'hive mind,' internet-based method of musical selection has proven to mirror organic evolutionary processes. From the abstract of their PNAS paper:

Music evolves as composers, performers, and consumers favor some musical variants over others. To investigate the role of consumer selection, we constructed a Darwinian music engine consisting of a population of short audio loops that sexually reproduce and mutate. This population evolved for 2,513 generations under the selective influence of 6,931 consumers who rated the loops’ aesthetic qualities. We found that the loops quickly evolved into music attributable, in part, to the evolution of aesthetically pleasing chords and rhythms.

Here is a short explanation with examples of the process unfolding interspersed:

It's really pretty cool. I went to the game and played for a bit, creating some 'children.' Here are my three favorites I parented:

Loop 1

Loop 2

Loop 3

 And of course I had to make a short mix of all three:

Darwin Loops Mix

Check it out.

Why We Should Teach Music History Backwards

THIS. One of the clear weaknesses of contemporary music education in the U.S. at all levels, up through graduate school, is that it does not typically proceed from existing musical interests or contemporary cultural contexts into more detailed and less familiar territory. (There are notable exceptions.) This principle seems essential to me in music education, or any areas of study and work that are strongly connected to cultural practice.

Geoffrey Himes illustrates one way this principle can be applied in his delightful article "Why We Should Teach Music History Backwards." Seriously, this article makes me want to start writing a reverse music history curriculum that would start with contemporary music surveys (popular, concert, movie and game scores, all of it) and work backwards in time, which I think could be fascinating. Call it the "Where Did This Come From?" approach.

(I do realize that this would require a fundamental shift of values in the musical world on all sides, from ones that originate from judgments about means and modes of musical creation to values that emerge from engagement with contemporary cultural practices as they are found. I'm also aware that such a paradigm shift would take over a generation. But, you know, the second best time to plant a tree is now.)

Seminal writings about music, pt. 1: Reich, Music as a Gradual Process

Writing about music is hard. It is, as someone famously said, like dancing about architecture, or, as the New Republic published in 1918:

Strictly considered, writing about music is as illogical as singing about economics. All the other arts can be talked about in the terms of ordinary life and experience. A poem, a statue, a painting or a play is a representation of somebody or something, and can be measurably described (the purely aesthetic values aside) by describing what it represents.

If words could produce the effect that music does, if we could express what music allows us to express using text or speech or image instead, we probably would. Music is difficult and complex and abstract and temporal so you have to really pay attention and listen actively and lots of stuff that it's frankly easier to get people to do using words or images but those things can't do what music does, so we music instead despite those rather distinct properties.

Continue reading "Seminal writings about music, pt. 1: Reich, Music as a Gradual Process" »

In Praise of Idleness

Jordan Bates, over at his consistently interesting site Refine the Mind, takes a close look at one of the great thinker Bertrand Russell's more provocative essays: In Praise of Idleness: Bertrand Russell on the virtues of leisure.

As Russell asserts in his essay, leisure time is often tremendously productive, because our work is toward our own ends and interests. Unfortunately, we are convinced to work for others primarily by the construct of duty:

The conception of duty, speaking historically, has been a means used by the holders of power to induce others to live for the interests of their masters rather than for their own.

Bates summarizes Russell's thinking nicely, and asserts that his message is more timely than ever--especially considering the post-scarcity world we rapidly find ourselves moving into.

I find these kinds of arguments particularly compelling because I'm a musician, and making music is arguably one of the least useful and most important activities of human culture.

Continue reading "In Praise of Idleness" »

Examining the subjectivity of time in musical experiences

Composer Jonathan Berger recently penned How Music Hijacks Our Perception of Time, a delightful examination of temporal perception in music, the ways that music can suspend and dilate a moment in time and make it seem to last forever, or compress time in a way that hurtles our consciousness along with it. 

As Berger notes, 

The human brain, we have learned, adjusts and recalibrates temporal perception. Our ability to encode and decode sequential information, to integrate and segregate simultaneous signals, is fundamental to human survival. It allows us to find our place in, and navigate, our physical world. But music also demonstrates that time perception is inherently subjective—and an integral part of our lives.

In the article, he deconstructs and examines several passages from Schubert's String Quartet in C Major to consider how, exactly, a master composer--that is, one who shapes a listener's conscious experience through the temporal manipulation of pressure waves--uses music to influence our perception of time, and what expressive effect that can have.

It's a terrific, thoughtful piece with some excellent examples. Please enjoy here.


Alan Watts: the guru you didn't know you needed

No, seriously: reading and listening to Alan Watts might just change your life. Well...not your life, per se, but it could definitely change you in some important and fundamental ways, and that would lead to changes in your life.

I could proselytize about this remarkable and wise thinker at length, but instead I'll let him speak for himself and just share a few short samples of his thinking (animated by Trey Parker & Matt Stone; reading recommendations below).

Life and Music:


I (the illusion of ego):


Continue reading "Alan Watts: the guru you didn't know you needed" »

Mind the gap: exploring great music in the middle

Re: Matt's recent post about the repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera over the past century

For a while now, Matt and I have been talking about and exploring what a truly American opera company might look like, and what its repertoire might be. It's a fascinating question, and for me the answers are strongly influenced by examples like the Modernist populist composers, whose work was both substantial and accessible, subtly-crafted yet firmly populist in origin and/or appeal. Examples would include Aaron Copland, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill, or Leonard Bernstein. (Kyle Gann wrote a great post about a largely unknown but terrific American composer cut from this cloth, Marc Blitzstein, the only composer to study with both Boulanger and Schoenberg.)

The schism between American opera and popular culture was driven to a great degree by repertoire choices. But it was also driven by rejection or avoidance of, e.g., inventions and outcomes of industrialization, like technology or socio-political shifts in the early 20th century. Specific examples include something as prosaic as the microphone (which, ironically, made possible the very first ever radio broadcast ever which was a performance of the Metropolitan Opera in 1910) or the massive cultural influence of pervasive electronic media, led by the radio (invading American homes since around 1920), and the democratization of culture it enabled.

Continue reading "Mind the gap: exploring great music in the middle" »

The decline of opera's cultural relevancy in pictures

A brilliant collection of data from performances over the last 100 years at The Metropolitan Opera  demonstrates the decline in cultural relevancy in opera in the United States (illustrating patterns found throughout large, influential performing arts organizations in the U.S. more generally).

A few highlights:

1.  Median year of composition of works performed in 1910: 1870.

2.  Median year of composition of works performed in 2014: 1870. No change in 104 years.

3.  In 1910, 50% of all operas performed at The Met had been composed within the past 25 years.  As perspective, to match that today, half of current programming would be composed since 1989 (the actual portion today is less than 5%).

4.  In 1910, 80% of all operas performed at The Met had been composed within the past 50 years. Today, that means that most of their repertoire would be composed since 1964 (the actual current portion is also less than 5%).

5.  The Met has only ever produced a single opera by a female composer. It was in 1903.

If there was ever any doubt that opera as currently practiced is an inherently European art form that never evolved within American culture, check out the graph showing the percentage of American composers featured at The Met over the last 100 years. Or any of the other graphs, it's very sobering data, and our thanks to Suby Raman for putting it together.

It's not too hard to figure out why more people in the U.S. don't go to the opera.

Going to the orchestra will help get you laid?

According to Ben Folds, orchestral music is a great aphrodisiac. Which I don't disagree with, but the article also has a more salient point: community engagement by meeting listeners where they are culturally has been a boon for the St. Louis Symphony:

[S]ince launching its Live at Powell Hall series -- a collection of performances that focus on music icons, current entertainers and scores from film and television -- and other special initiatives in 2008, the St. Louis Symphony has seen significant growth in ticket revenue, from $4.84 million in 2008 to $6.57 million in 2013, with more than 39,000 new ticket buyers.

The article also gives some detail on Folds' new piano concerto, his first concert work in a very successful musical career that has thus far only covered the popular realm.

Battling Artistic Entitlement

As the General and Artistic Director of a small regional opera company in Modesto, CA, I have watched the situation with San Diego Opera unfold with a combination of amazement and bitterness.  I am amazed that a company that presents four productions annually with a $15 million budget and no debt would close down voluntarily, and I am bitter at the thought of the work our company could do for our community with a tiny fraction of that annual budget.  But this decision, made at the urging of their senior management, has helped bring into focus something I think has been a widespread problem for some time now, one which harms the sustainability of many performing arts organizations:

Artistic Entitlement.

Continue reading "Battling Artistic Entitlement" »

Blow it up, start again

I stole the title of this post from composer  Jonathan Newman. It's the name of a swaggering barn-burner of a piece with a great, one-sentence program note.

If the system isn't working anymore, then do what Guy Fawkes tried and go anarchist: Blow it all up, and start again.

That title was the first thing that popped into my head when I read this opinion piece in the Star-Tribune. In it arts consultant Lawrence Perelman lays out a drastic and brilliant course of action for the Minnesota Orchestra musicians.

Follow Maestro Vänskä’s lead and resign from the Minnesota Orchestra Association. Immediately announce the creation of the Minnesota Symphony, a self-governing orchestra modeled on the Vienna Philharmonic. Find a charitable organization to give temporary use of its tax status (while you establish a new nonprofit) so you can receive donations from foundations and corporations and from your audience. Govern yourselves, and assign responsibilities to yourselves. Make history by setting an example for other orchestras to follow, and end the labor-management paradigm that leads to these kinds of disputes.

Now there's a thought. Maybe some of the orchestra's younger members took one of those entrepreneurship classes in conservatory that everyone's talking about now!


Postcard pieces

The London Sinfonietta had a composition contest recently, except that each piece had to fit on the back of a postcard.  Seriously.  And the results are are fantastic.  From their blog:

On Sunday, 15 September, the London Sinfonietta will be performing a selection of composer James Tenney’s Postal Pieces as part of Kings Place Festival.

Inspired by Tenney’s innovative work, we held an open call asking for compositions written on the back of a postcard and the response was phenomenal. A total of 355 RSVP compositions from 170 composers were sent in from 20 countries on 5 continents.
Also be sure to check out the brochure for their new season.  So much good programming and terrific, innovative presentation modes.  "This is not a museum" indeed.

The audience is driving now

If anyone needed a clear, message-on-the-mountain kind of symbol for how fundamentally the creation, consumption, sharing, and general experience and means of culture have radically changed (and continue to change), here it is: 

A Kickstarter page to make a movie version of TV show Veronica Mars (which ended its TV run in 2007) raised its goal of TWO MILLION DOLLARS in less than a day.  So now not only is the movie that fans want definitely getting made, it still has four weeks to raise even more money to increase production quality significantly.

Think about that: fans are willing to fund on a large scale the creation of work they love, and we now have easy mechanisms for allowing them to do so.  The corporate and institutional hierarchies that have controlled the creation and dissemination of creative work for decades are being fundamentally, radically disempowered.  The implications are staggering.

Running a marathon in jeans

Another great idea from Marin Alsop and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. They've partnered with the Parsons School of Design to help design concert atire that is tailored to the needs of performers. Concert attire is still such an loaded issue for many musicians so it makes great sense to seek outside perspectives by teaming up with people who 1) are pursuing design studies and 2) not too emotionally invensted in what orchestral musicians wear on stage. This quote from the article sums it up nicely.

"Classical musicians are still wearing garments that were designed before the advent of all kinds of textiles and technologies,” said Joel Towers, the executive dean of Parsons, who attended the presentation. “You wouldn’t expect an Olympic-quality athlete to go trying to run the 100 meters in a pair of jeans. It doesn’t make a lot of sense.”

Playing the room

Well, this looks cool. More via Hypebot.

Bach Goes Open-Source With A Little Help From Some Fans

I wrote about this project - a crowd-funded edition of Bach's Goldberg Variations - a few months ago. Glad to see it's a success.



You have to hand it to good old J.S. Bach for the latest project taken up in his name: a successful campaign to open-source and app-ify one of his most beloved works, The Goldberg Variations.


NewMusicBox article.

My new article for NewMusicBox - Great Expectations: The Challenge of New Music in New Spaces - is up. Please feel free to share your thoughts and critiques because I think this is a really interesting discussion. I only wish more bookers had responded to interview requests so that I could have provided a more comprehensive picture of this issue from their perspective.

Luggage Store Gallery


Local programming for the national spotlight

In Thomas Deneuville's review of the Brooklyn Phil's recent Brooklyn Village he asks "At which point does deserved pride turn into navel gazing?" I also have mixed feelings about this program. On one hand I think it's the kind of innovative, community-specific programming that every orchestra should engage in, but on the other it seems a bit too contrived, too twee - a program too self conscious in its all-encompassing coolness and eclecticism. It's a small quibble, though. On the whole I think Pierson is creating really innovative programs.

Unlike Deneuville, I am not concerned with the Brooklyn Phil becoming less global. I think very few ensembles can and should be global ones for the simple reason that national or global trends might not be best for audiences in your hometown. The Oakland East Bay Symphony's programming is a prime example of this. Like the Brooklyn Phil they are reaching out to the many cultural groups that live here, but on the other hand they're certainly not performing Kreayshawn transcriptions. 

So many ideas to choose from

I read some interesting articles this week about musical entrepreneurship and wanted to share them. I don't think any of them are going to blow your mind, but they do contain good ideas and moreover seem to represent the profusion of creative thinking about funding and promotion occurring in much of the music biz.

Not All Musicians Are Entrepreneurs, But Successful And Professional Ones Are - some interesting thoughts on approaching the musician/fan relationship.

Top 5 Signs Pop Music Looks Like Classical - Not every item on this list works, but it does point out how enterprising musicians are using small-scale patronage instead of large record contracts to fund albums. For 20 bucks anyone can be a Rasumovsky, sort of. I previously wrote about this here.

From Dive Bars To The Daughtry Tour: How Mike Sanchez Is Using New Media To Realize His Dream - Sanchez uses some ingenious social media strategies to make a name for himself and build a fan base. 

As you may have noticed, two of these posts are from the excellent site Hypebot.

Pulp Fiction in chronological order and the inevitable majority of remix culture

Something I've wanted to see for years, Pulp Fiction in chronological order:


Plus, a very interesting thought about the inevitably rising majority of remix culture:

"For most people, sharing and remixing with attribution and no commercial intent is instinctually a-okay..... What happens when — and this is inevitable — a generation completely comfortable with remix culture becomes a majority of the electorate, instead of the fringe youth?"

I left my quarter tone marimba in San Francisco

A few months ago I was fortunate enough to be asked to write an article for NewMusicBox about the SF new music scene. For the next few weeks I dutifly pounded the pavement (and Bay Bridge), met a lot of very cool folks, and heard some fantastic new music. The article, published last week (link below), centered around the remarkable Magik*Magik Orchestra, then branched out from there in a 6 Degrees from Kevin Bacon kind of way to explore the musical endeavors of several young musicians. It's a snapshop of a very cool scene.

Shake It To the Ground: SF Musicians Re-envision Classic(al) Career Paths

Special thanks goes out to Annie Phillips, who put me in contact with many of the musicians interviewed, and to Magik*Magik, Nonsemble 6, and the guys at The Living Earth Show for allowing me to attend their rehearsals.


The Living Earth Show in their fuzzy-walled rehearsal cave.


OPERA REMIX is here! Tonight!

Tonight at the State Theater in Modesto, California: Opera Remix, from Townsend Opera.  You can read all about it on the Remix webpage, but this event is a major foray into the real world for the Loose Filter philosophy (disclosure: I'm Creative Consultant for this project with the opera any similarities are not coincidental at all).

Here's a clip from the reading rehearsal last night with orchestra only, playing Jonathan Newman's setting of Here Comes the Sun:


Enjoy a couple more rehearsal clips here (of Summertime and Baba O'Riley) from a playlist that includes gems from Mozart, Puccini, Gershwin, Led Zeppelin, Chicago, Pink Floyd, and more.  Keep an eye on the Opera Remix website if this catches your interest, there will be much more video of the event itself posted there soon!

I'll also soon be posting here, in installments, a user-friendly version of the research paper that started things rolling on this extremely innovative project from a wonderful regional opera company.  Stay tuned.

On second thought

Jonah Lehrer writes about how emotional decision-making may be better than rational decision-making when faced with complex choices.

While there is an extensive literature on the potential wisdom of human emotion, it’s only in the last few years that researchers have demonstrated that the emotional system (aka Type 1 thinking) might excel at complex decisions, or those involving lots of variables. If true, this would suggest that the unconscious is better suited for difficult cognitive tasks than the conscious brain, that the very thought process we’ve long disregarded as irrational and impulsive might actually be “smarter” than reasoned deliberation. 

Continue reading "On second thought" »


Interesting email this morning from Gregory Ruffer, a conductor and doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Dear Conductors Guild Member:

I am a doctoral student at Teachers College, Columbia University in New York City, where I am completing my dissertation research under the advisment of Dr. Hal Abeles. The working title of my dissertation is, "The Sinister Conductor: Preceptions and Practices of University Conducting Instructors Toward Left-Handed Students." 

One portion of my research involves surveying conductors about their work with left-handed people. I would be most appreciative if you could take 15 minutes of your time to complete my survey. Your input will assure that the data in my dissertation is representative of the largest possible population. Please click on this link to complete the survey:

Continue reading "Lefties" »

Can I get a recording of that?

Really thought-provoking post from Nico Muhly on the difficulty many composers have acquiring recordings of their own works, and how having access to those recordings can be an extremely valuable learning experience. The discussion continues in the comment thread, and it is worth a read.

I remember a composer actually having to email me and ask me to return promo CD because he didn't have permission from the orchestra that performed one of the pieces to distribute it.


Best of LFP: American Eclectic, or why I conduct mostly bands

Stuart's great essay describes how the needs and nature of our classical music institutions, and not our audiences or the music itself, have come to disproportionately and unconsciously influence thinking in the field. He suggests reframing the discussion and posits that the wind band is an ideal medium to do so.

American Eclectic, or why I conduct mostly bands

Filter bubbles - pt. 2

In a previous post I talked about the filter bubble I've created for myself in terms of my classical music world view, and resolved to search out other voices that would add to a mostly one-sided discussion. It's been tough because there aren't many folks outside the classical music world writing about it, but here are a few interesting perspectives.

MetaFilter - classical music is not a big discussion topic on the blue, but a few posts have generated some great discussions and sobering perspectives. For example, from this thread:

Great orchestra sounds incredible, and is an experience not to be missed; no doubt. But am I sad that a member of the orchestra gets paid only $40k for their part time work doing something that they love, which is about what the average full time American makes? Not exactly. Is it right to think that Joe Cellist is a truly fundamental piece of any given local music scene? No. - felix


Continue reading "Filter bubbles - pt. 2" »

Intellectual property, continued

The Artful Manager had an interesting post in which he shared some points of view that questioned the assumption that stealing (or giving your stuff away for free) is bad for business (previously). He linked to a couple of studies that suggest that sales of knock-off designer handbags can lead to sales of the actual item. For some people, it turns out, possession of the fake or pirated item can actually lead to a desire for the real deal. For example, author Neil Gaiman discovered that access to pirated copies of his work seemed to boost sales, and convinced his publisher to conduct an experiment testing the idea.

Continue reading "Intellectual property, continued" »

Another one lost...

Another U.S. orchestra has shut down, meaning we've lost FOUR this season: Honolulu, New Mexico, Syracuse, and now Bellevue (WA).  As well, Louisville and Philadelphia have filed for bankruptcy protection.  Lebrecht gives the story here.

As regular readers of this site know, our position is that the basic problem remains relatively uncomplicated to understand: the potential American listeners that orchestras need to reach simply are not interested in what they are offering.  It could be different specific things: programming, modes of presentation, ticket prices, competition, etc., but it seems that many American orchestras somehow think that if they can just preserve what audience they have through the recession or whatever, things will spring back to normal eventually.  This does not acknowledge that the larger culture has changed and is changing in fundamental ways to which artists must adapt if their work is to resonate with listeners.

Continue reading "Another one lost..." »

Everyone's a patron with direct-to-fan

Matthew Guerrieri recaps the Rethink Music conference at the Berklee College of Music (via NewMusicBox). The conference aimed to bring together "all sides and viewpoints on the subjects of creativity, commerce, and policy to engage in critical dialogue examining the business and rights challenges facing the music industry." But, as Guerrieri writes, the viewpoints of emerging artists and established players on those subjects couldn't be more divergent.

[T]here was, for example, Del Bryant, the president and CEO of BMI, opining on Tuesday morning that "giving things away for free" was "not building the business," while the Canadian band Metric and their voluble manager, Matt Drouin, related on Tuesday afternoon how they built their business by giving things away for free. There was Cary Sherman, president of the RIAA, insisting that lawsuits against file-sharing end users had "clearly [indicated] to the public at large what was legal and what was not," a day after the singer/songwriter Bleu had matter-of-factly said, "I don't think there's any way to go back to monetizing music."

Continue reading "Everyone's a patron with direct-to-fan" »

Filter bubbles - pt. 1

Eli Pariser's great TED Talk about the dangers of internet "filter bubbles" got me thinking about what other types of filters shape my worldview. I realized that in addition to the algorithmic ones that Pariser is concerned about, there are also filters I've unintentionally created myself.

When I looked at the RSS feeds I subscribe to I realized that almost every blog or webpage belongs to someone squarely in the classical music world, someone who is either part of a large, traditional institution, or dependent on one. I thought about some of these folks and wondered what they filter out. For instance, if you only read Greg Sandow you'd think that nearly all orchestras are going out of business. If you only read Alex Ross, on the other hand, you'd think that classical music concerts are the coolest, hippest things in the world. If you only read Proper Discord you would probably think that all arts administrators are idiots.

Continue reading "Filter bubbles - pt. 1" »

Supreme Court to hear public domain case

In 1994 Congress, following the latest round of GATT talks, voted to remove thousands of works, including musical scores, from the public domain. The rationale was that U.S. copyright laws would now be comparable to those in Europe - at that time many musical scores that were in the public domain in the U.S. were still under copyright in their home country - and this new parity would help protect the rights of U.S. composers, authors, and publishers abroad. If you've ever stumbled across an old set of parts for a Shostakovich or Prokofiev symphony in your school's library and wondered why that piece is rental-only today, this is the reason why.

A case challenging Congress' right to remove works from the public domain is now on its way to the Supreme Court. The plaintiff, conductor Lawrence Golan. The Chronicle of Higher Ed tells the story of Golan's journey from a conductor stymied, as many of us are, by the high costs of copyrighted works, to a reluctant advocate for the protection of the public domain.

Do musicians have better brains?

A new study says yes:

New research shows that musicians' brains are highly developed in a way that makes the musicians alert, interested in learning, disposed to see the whole picture, calm, and playful. The same traits have previously been found among world-class athletes, top-level managers, and individuals who practice transcendental meditation.

Summary is here, abstract is here.  Their conclusions are quite interesting:

[Those with high mind-brain development, such as musicians] have well-coordinated frontal lobes. Our frontal lobes are what we use for higher brain functions, such as planning and logical thinking.... Yet another EEG measure shows that individuals with high mind brain development use their brain resources economically. They are alert and ready for action when it is functional to be so, but they are relaxed and adopt a wait-and-see attitude when that is functional.

Musicians also exhibit higher levels of moral reasoning and have more peak experiences.  Fascinating stuff.

Disruptive technologies and intellectual property

NPR had a succinct history of the MP3 a while back. It was an interesting read, and this is what fascinated me the most.

The story of how the [MP3] technology was hijacked and adapted for widespread consumers contains not only the roots of the war that the music industry would later wage over the tiny, compressed, user-friendly files, but also echoes of some of the very ideas that war was fought over: intellectual property, copyright, technology, theft, control and the free distribution of ideas and products that had taken years to realize.

What's notable and disturbing is that Brandenburg and his colleagues were ultimately unable to assert their intellectual property rights once someone copied and distributed their proprietary software used to encode MP3 files. This problem - "the free distribution of ideas and products that had taken years to realize" - made me think of composers and their music, and this post from John Mackey's blog in particular. While John's post deals with unlicensed performances, it still made me wonder what technologies have the potential to impact the classical music world the way the MP3 impacted the recording industry.

Continue reading "Disruptive technologies and intellectual property" »

Check please

In case you missed it, here is Proper Discord's contribution to Drew McManus's Take a Friend to the Orchestra project. He shares his experiences attending orchestral concerts with non-musicians, and the results are pretty much what you would expect. If the show was good, his guests enjoyed it; if it wasn't, they didn't.

PD explodes (IMHO) the argument that suggests that audience members have to have technical musical knowledge to enjoy musical structures like sonata form. His guests either liked the show or they didn't, and didn't need a technical explanation to justify their reaction. It's like eating out, PD says:

When you’re sitting in a restaurant and your food shows up cold, you don’t care why it wasn’t cooked properly. You just wanted it warm.



"It has indulged...a narcissistic avant-garde speaking in languages that repel the average committed listener..."

Bernard Holland pithily dissects the two basic sets of problems facing American orchestras, in a very perceptive article from 2003:

The free-enterprise system, which worked so admirably to bring the American city its new wealth, transferred poorly to the performing arts. [...] With good management, it is supposed, money and listeners will come rolling in -- again, a symptom masquerading as a cause. Orchestras are not sick because they have bad management. They have bad management because they are sick. Failing industries do not attract top employees.

[...] As for disappearing audiences, no amount of managing will solve that one. Classical music has only itself to blame. It has indulged the creation of a narcissistic avant-garde speaking in languages that repel the average committed listener in even our most sophisticated American cities.

[...] Fleeing audiences are one more symptom, the cause being a public art that has been abandoned by its avant-garde and uses up its given natural resources with profligacy. Audiences are not to blame. They are smarter than Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt want to think they are.

Definitely worth a read and some reflection....

Teachout in WSJ misses the point (while making a good one)

So Terry Teachout wrote a kind-of-controversial article that ran in the Wall Street Journal today, rounding up some of the recent terrible news in the American performing arts world and making a comment about those problems--and he almost, but not quite, says what those problems are really about.  After detailing some sobering recent news, including the Philadelphia Orchestra (!) filing for bankruptcy last week, Teachout observes:

What's the problem? In the immortal (if apocryphal) words of Sam Goldwyn, "If nobody wants to see your picture, there's nothing you can do to stop them." Corollary: If nobody can afford a ticket to your show, there's nothing you can do to make them buy one. When money is tight and ticket prices keep climbing, playgoers and opera buffs will respond by staying home. Moreover, the high-culture business models of the past don't work anymore.

In that quote he almost clearly sees the fundamental problem that American performing arts organizations face, but then sort of willfully ignores it and talks about business models.  He is right that ticket prices are generally way too high and that most of the business models of large performing arts organizations are no longer working and need to be fundamentally reconsidered, particularly with regard to negotiations between labor and management. 

But the real truth is in that Goldwyn quote: more and more, people are simply not interested in the products offered by large performing arts organizations.  They aren't buying tickets because they do not value what is on offer, and are choosing to spend their entertainment dollars elsewhere.  (If ticket prices are way too expensive, how do successful professional sports franchises continue to sell so many high dollar season tickets?  People will find a way to pay for experiences they value.)

This seems to be the real, potential core problem that no one wants to say out loud or discuss openly: the possibility that the kind of musical experience that symphony orchestras and opera companies currently offer appeals to too few Americans to sustain the institutions that present them.  The gap between what classical musicians do and what American listeners seek may have simply grown too wide to bridge in any sustainable way with current practices. 

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Musicians use both sides of their brains more frequently than non-musicians

Recent research out of Vanderbilt University, published in the journal Brain and Cognition:

Supporting what many of us who are not musically talented have often felt, new research reveals that trained musicians really do think differently than the rest of us. Vanderbilt University psychologists have found that professionally trained musicians more effectively use a creative technique called divergent thinking, and also use both the left and the right sides of their frontal cortex more heavily than the average person.

Some interesting conclusions, read about the research here.